Magazine article The Spectator

But Still the Sea Came In

Magazine article The Spectator

But Still the Sea Came In

Article excerpt

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala Virago, £12.99, pp. 224, ISBN 9781844089284 Sonali Deraniyagala's horrific book Wave, about her experience in and after the 26 December 2004 tsunami that struck the south-east coast of Sri Lanka, is one of the most moving memoirs I have ever read.

Anyone who has been to Hambantota, stayed at the Rest House and looked down at the beautiful bay lined with catamarans at the very edge of the town, will remember Woolf's description of the sea because it was impossible not to experience what he heard before falling asleep.

But it also used to frighten me. It was indeed the rhythm of life on that beautiful bay which has long been known as one of the safest anchorages in the world. The Greek navigators of Alexander the Great knew of the harbour, as did Ptolemy, who marked it on his map of Taprobane under the name Dionysii. Today's name probably derives from sampan-tota, meaning 'harbour of the sampans'. Malays, sailing in their sampans westwards across the ocean from southeast Asia, came to Ceylon in search of elephants.

Some of them settled, and now, as a result of further Malay immigration, Hambantota has the largest population of Malay Muslims in Sri Lanka. In 2004, they were among the unfortunate people who fell victim to the terrible tsunami which followed the same path across the ocean from Sumatra as their ancestors in their sampans. When the monster wave struck, the bay turned from being a favourite anchorage into a living death trap.

When I was a small boy in 1940s Ceylon I always stayed in the Hambantota Rest House with my family, before heading the few miles up the coast, through Tissamaharama, to the Yala National Park, probably my favourite place in the whole of Sri Lanka. I have been back many times, and have written about it. In fact I was staying in Yala only a few days before the wave struck, researching my book Woolf in Ceylon, which was published the following year. Woolf was a junior civil servant in Ceylon from 1904-1911 and was Assistant District Commissioner in the Hambantota area, which included Yala, during his last few years.

On the morning of 26 December 2004, Sonali Deraniyagala, her parents, her husband and her two young sons were holidaying at the Yala Safari Beach Hotel. Looking out of her window before 9 o'clock that morning, she thought nothing of the unusual sea activity.

It was a friend who alerted her. 'Oh my God, the sea's coming in.' At first it didn't seem that alarming - only the white curl of a big wave. …

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