I imagine saying those words – “My family, they are all dead, in an instant they vanished” – and I reel.
– Sonali Deraniyagala in Wave (p.116)
I don’t understand all this hype about Sonali Deraniyagala’s book Wave.
Maybe, it’s because Sonali lost all her dear ones (husband, two young sons and both parents) in one go.
After all, it’s not every day you hear of someone losing multiple family members together.
To bear the death of one close family member is hard enough but that of many inevitably turns one’s thoughts to suicide (as it did for our Sonali).
Or maybe the hype is because most readers and reviewers of the book feel a sense of comradeship with one of their own.
An author who is like them, an educated middle class or upper class person.
No wonder the Delhi rape incident in December 2012 triggered such a big hue and cry, resonating with the self-absorbed, callous Indian middle class like few horror stories ever do in Mera Bharat Mahaan.
Because the rape victim was so like the Indian media people writing about her and the Internet audience reading about her, she became an instant heroine to hundreds of millions rousing even the pusillanimous somnolent Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to issue a statement.
Thousands of poor folks die every day under terrible circumstances in India and elsewhere.
Many meet a sad end after enduring death by a thousand cuts. Yet no one gives a fig for them because they’re not like us!
To gain our attention and to attract our sympathy, you must be like us!
Only then can we identify with your suffering!
Countless people die every day, both deserving and undeserving, but we won’t care. Hell, we won’t even move the mouse unless you happen to be like us.
And if you are like us, then we’ll make such a song and dance about your loss, your God Almighty suffering and elevate you into a heroine!
Wave is Sonali Deraniyagala’s 227-page memoir about her great loss.
In its essence, the book is a boring, tiresome outpouring of grief!
Yes, in just a few minutes on the morning of December 26, 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala’s life was turned upside down.
Not merely literally but in a life-altering sense for her.
Flung out of the jeep she and her husband and children were fleeing in to escape the approaching giant tidal waves, the tsunami in Sri Lanka spared Sonali; but snatched her husband, her two young boys, and the parents she’d thoughtlessly abandoned at the Yala hotel in a South-Eastern Sri Lanka wildlife resort they were all vacationing in, to a watery grave.
But let’s keep things in perspective, shall we.
Sonali’s husband Stephen Lissenburgh, sons Vikram and Nikhil (Malli) and parents Gemini and Edward Deraniyagala were merely five of the 35,322 deaths caused by the tsunami in Sri Lanka alone.
Overall, the tsunami claimed a quarter-million lives (the majority in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand).
But at least Sonali and her loved ones had a good life, for the most part, unlike countless millions in South Asia, before the calamity. Wonder, of how many other tsunami fatalities in Asia we can say the same!
Tidal Grief but Not Moving
Does the book make for engrossing reading?
Not for me!
I was rarely, if ever, moved by Sonali’s account of her pre-tsunami happy life.
The prose doesn’t jump out of the pages and the overall quality of writing is merely above average.
And even for a memoir, I was drowning in the I, me, my and mine littering every paragraph of the book.
The book integrates Sonali’s endless moaning with snippets of the lives of her husband Steve, their children, and her parents, her childhood in Colombo, the family’s lives in London, the vacations back in Colombo blah blah blah to the point of ad nauseum.
Just because the Sri Lanka born Sonali happens to be an upper class, well-educated woman with a British husband, her outpouring of grief gets a sea of attention from the literati.
The gushing reviews are coming in for the book like the tidal wave that extinguished Sonali’s family, and the comments are invariably about how “heart-breaking” it must be for the poor woman.
The book has struck a chord with many readers who, perhaps, right at this moment are telling their friends, Ah, the poor thing. She lost everything in the tsunami.
My unrequited advice to the Sonalis of the world – Be thankful for the blessings you have and stop whining when it’s taken away from you.
The “Like us” tendency explains everything.
In the book, Sonali’s focus is far more on her two kids Vikram (Vik) and Nikhil (Malli) than on the husband or parents.
It’s hard to understand if we should attribute this high focus on the kids purely to the strong maternal instinct or should we read into it that her relationship with husband and parents were not on as strong a footing.
Sonali suspects that readers will notice this difference and writes in the book: “How hideous, that there should be a pecking order in my grief.”
From what I have seen, Maternal instinct seems to grow strong, only when the relationship with husband and others are not so strong.
Kids become a way of hope somehow and an escape for them, although the kids may or may not reciprocate it.
Who can fathom the myriad variations in womens’ thought processes! 😉
Did Sonali’s grief feel true to you?
If it did, then I think it’s good that she stuck to this project purely as a memoir as opposed to a novel.
I never read memoirs coz it’s hard to expect a satisfactory resolution — better or worse.
I’d like to suggest “21 Grams”. One of the best indie ensemble dramas I have seen. I bet you’d like it.
1. You write: Did Sonali’s grief feel true to you?
Grief over a loss expressed through the pages of a book to a stranger, after a gap of 7+ years, is hard to grasp.
Immediacy is an important concept to feeling grief. The tsunami is a distant memory now, and over 250,000 people died in the destruction wrought by the tidal waves.
Be it Sonali’s family members or anyone else, the notion of ordinary peoples’ grief doesn’t touch strangers easily.
When grief is put to paper, it loses a lot of its poignancy and doesn’t feel so true.
The act of writing may be catharsis to the grief-stricken author but to the reader there’s a feeling of exploitation of the lost ones.
Perhaps, there’s more meaning to the phrase Rest in Peace than we realize!
2. Ordered 21 Grams DVD from my library. Should have it in 2 or 3 days.
Great review, upper class women are the worst when it comes to narcissism.
Your review captures this very well, its amazing that you actually read this drivel.
I don’t the Delhi Rape Victim fits that mode though, from what little I read it seems she was still in the struggling to make it category, not this insufferable upper-class Asian Woman who thinks she is now a privileged and special creature after marrying some White Guy.
1. In the book, Sonali has a condescending, disdainful attitude toward other people, both young children and grownups!
It’s not clear if her grief leads her to behave that way. But I’m inclined to accept your point that upper class women are insufferable narcissists.
2. The Delhi rape victim was in the lower middle class but in the upwardly mobile phase making her an attractive symbol to millions of Indians whose lives are in a similar upward trajectory.
About what you said “No wonder the Delhi rape incident in December 2012 triggered such a big hue and cry, resonating with the self-absorbed, callous Indian middle class like few horror stories ever do in Mera Bharat Mahaan……………And if you are like us, then we’ll make such a song and dance about your loss, your God Almighty suffering and elevate you into a heroine!”
About your “like us” theory i cant make out the real reason that’s driving those middle class people (who are mostly apathetic to anything) to the roads and protesting for justice for the rape victim and even to the extent to beaten up by police during protests.
Was it the fear that the same thing may be happen to them or their family members??
Or Was it the sympathy towards the victim?? or ,Were they enraged by the inhumane brutality of the crime?? or they suddenly felt some serious sense of justice and social responsibility ,to stand up for the victim?? what is it do you think.??
(Given the nature of an avg Indian, i seriously doubt the last one).
1. I do not believe the Indian middle class suddenly woke up to issues of justice and social responsibility. In India, only Maoists and a few sincere social activists like Medha Patkar, the late Baba Amte etc have genuinely fought on behalf of the dispossessed and those who cannot fight for themselves including the many not “like us.” But the battles of both Maoists and social activists vs the state are hopelessly one-sided and feeble cries in the wilderness.
2. My hypothesis is that when the Indian middle class saw the Delhi rape victim’s story in the newspaper headlines, likely after getting back from the mall, they replaced “Nirbhaya” with their own names in the headlines, started shivering and experienced the same rape (albeit without any of the real pain or anguish). OMG, if it can happen to her today it can happen to me tomorrow is a lurking fear in the middle class! The middle-class protests and all that noise on behalf of “Nirbhaya” was in part a protest demanding greater security and police protection for themselves and in part an identification with someone “like us” – upwardly mobile, interested in shopping and fashion accessories, fondness for gadgets, going to the mall, seeing Hollywood films, having a boy-friend/girl-friend etc. Ironically, on the day she was attacked Nirbhaya too was returning from the mall (after seeing Life of Pi)!
Every day in the backwaters of India, far from the urban nerve-centers and media hubs, there are outrages as callous and brutal as what happened to the Delhi victim. Yet those accounts of misery never make it outside the villages and small towns because media and the middle class don’t identify with them because they’re not “like us.”
3. Bottom line, a few protests and some shrill media anchors won’t change diddly squat in India because a key problem is the lack of respect for rule of law in Mera Bharat Mahaan.
When that idiot Rahul Gandhi visited that beast Salman Khan’s home in Mumbai (In April 2011 after the World Cup final) despite serious criminal charges against Salman, Rahul sent an unambiguous signal to the whole country that he cares two hoots for rule of law or for the moral strictures against cavorting with known hoodlums and thugs. Some 11 years after murdering a pavement dweller while driving drunk, seriously injuring others and running off without helping the victims, Salman Khan is still partying.
So why would, why should, people lower down the line in Delhi, Aligarh, Mannargudi or Chilakaluripet have any respect for rule of law? Greater respect for rule of law is one of the biggest differences between U.S. and India.
So people’s response to that incidence,it was out of fear, and i completely agree with you.
And about people demanding for greater security and police protection for themselves, I think its nearly impossible to offer protection for 1.27 billion population with the shortage of policemen and the shoddy fire arms they’re given with some serious restrictions imposed on ’em.
And lack of respect for rule of law in India,there are several reasons for that, but i think laggard Judicial court procedures is the main reason,there are nearly 3 billion pending cases. Deep rooted corruption, where one can even bribe judges
Any government exercises it power mainly through Judiciary, when the government itself is corrupted, peoples “lack of respect for rule of law” is the eventuality.
One of my relatives died in a car accident some years back. He was young and the bundle of joy to his family and everyone who knew him liked him a lot.
With his untimely death, the entire family was shattered. It took them a VERY long time to accept the reality and move on.
So, I just can’t understand the reason behind your “stop whining” comment.
“My unrequited advice to the Sonalis of the world – Be thankful for the blessings you have and stop whining when it’s taken away from you.”
What do you expect her to do? Losing one close person is hard enough but she lost her entire family. WHAT do you expect her to do?
Maybe I haven’t understood well what you’ve been saying, but I find it very rude.
There are two aspects to the post: First, what I consider inordinate attention the book has attracted in the U.S. which I attribute to the “like us” tendency of readers, media etc when it comes to empathizing with others’ loss.
Second, unlike the lives of the majority of South Asians who live on the margins of existence Sonali’s life was a blessed upper-middle/upper class life till the death of her near ones. In my not-so-humble opinion, we ought to learn to look at ourselves in context to those around us and realize how lucky we are/were instead of endlessly moaning and droning on with a sense of entitlement when misfortune befalls us.
Death results in emotions and emotions are not logical.
So,regardless of social status it is impractical to expect someone who has lost a loved one to expect any emotion other than sorrow or grief.
However, when one writes a book about their sorrow with the intent (assumingly) of making money or inviting sympathy then it does open their emotions / intent for scrutiny and content for review.
The world has enough sorrows and troubles and it can do with less noise of personal tragedies!