As we remember the devastating flood that swept through Dayton a century ago, it is difficult to grasp the scope of the disaster that took place when flood waters inundated communities across a wide region. No actual eyewitnesses remain.
“Wave,” a new book by Sonali Deraniyagala, is the firsthand account of a woman who survived a massive watery disaster. The author grew up in Colombo, the largest city in Sri Lanka, the island nation in the Indian Ocean.
When she was 18 she went to England to study economics at Cambridge University. She made a number of friends there. She invited some of them to visit Sri Lanka during school breaks.
One of her friends, Steve, a young man from a tough part of East London, was also studying economics at Cambridge. He fell in love with Sri Lanka and with her. They married, had children (two boys) and immersed themselves in family and their academic careers.
In December 2004 they were vacationing at a hotel on the coast of Sri Lanka. The author’s parents were there, too. It was the day after Christmas, and they were preparing to check out.
Here’s how the book begins: “I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all. A white foamy wave had climbed all the way up to the rim of sand where the beach fell abruptly to the sea. You never saw water on that stretch of sand … ”
The author, her husband, and their two sons, Vik (age 7) and Malli (age 5) were in their room. A friend had dropped in. They were chatting when the friend noticed something unusual: “It was then she saw the wave. ‘Oh my God, the sea’s coming in.’ That’s what she said.”
That wave was a killer tsunami. The family ran from the hotel. She writes: “Ahead of us a jeep was moving fast.” It stopped for them. They got in, but they didn’t get very far. The rushing waters caught up with them quickly.
She describes those terrifying moments: “We were tilting from side to side. The water was rising now, filling the jeep.” She looked at her husband: “Then I saw Steve’s face. I’d never seen him like that before. A sudden look of terror, eyes wide open, mouth agape. He saw something behind me that I couldn’t see.”
At that point the vehicle capsized. They were swept away. The author’s family, her husband, her sons, her parents, they all perished. The author grabbed hold of a branch. Her descriptions of what happened are harrowing beyond belief.
We cannot imagine the depths of her sorrow. So many regrets. So much grief. After four years she finally went inside their London home.
Everything was as they had left it. Her love for her family gleams upon these pages. They are gone forever. But in some small way her words give them life again.
THIS WEEK’S BOOK
“Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala (Knopf, 234 pages, $24)