sband Steve Sonali’s hu am (centre) kr Vi ns and so alk along and Malli w the days in the beach t Sri tsunami hi before the ge: the pa ite os i Lanka. Opp the tsunam aftermath of 26, 2004. r on Decembe


Sonali Deraniyagala was holidaying in Sri Lanka when the 2004 tsunami struck, taking the lives of the five people who formed her world. She tells Abigail Pesta how she has gone on living after losing those she loved most
the slope towards the hotel. The foam turned to muddy waves, ripping past trees and brush. Sonali called Steve again, more urgently this time. He came out and took in the scene, which had changed from odd to menacing. No words were exchanged. Sonali grabbed her sons and, with Steve, ran out the door. That feverish dash would be one of the family’s last moments together. Today, more than eight years later, Sonali stares out at a sweeping expanse of skyscrapers in Manhattan. She is 36 floors up in a slick glass and steel tower – an office building buzzing with book editors and literary agents. It’s a mild winter’s day in February, a few days after the whirl of Fashion Week. She’s a world away from the morning of the waves, the day that thrust her into an unfathomable new life. Those waves, which would reach as high as nine metres, were part of the tsunami that swept across SouthEast Asia on December 26, 2004, killing 230,000 people and smashing towns to splinters. Sonali is here to talk about the memoir she’s written about the

hen she first saw the foamy water rushing in across the sand, Sonali Deraniyagala thought it was unusual, but not alarming. She was standing at the window of a hotel on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, where she was holidaying with her family. Raised in Sri Lanka, Sonali had been to the coast many times before, but she’d never seen the ocean swallow up so much of the beach. It was a quiet, lazy morning, a day after Christmas. Her two sons, Vikram, aged seven, and Nikhil (known as Malli, or “little brother”), five, were on the back verandah; her husband, Steve Lissenburgh, was in the bathroom. She called him to come and look.  She wanted her family to see this curious sight before the water receded. Yet the water didn’t recede. It kept rolling in, gaining speed and racing up




experience, called Wave. “That was my 40km an hour, but she managed to survival. There was a fire in me when reach up and clutch it. “I was seconds I started writing,” she says of her raging away from being swept out to sea,” she emotions in the wake of the tragedy. says. The water had carried her inland Telling her tale doesn’t come easily, never seen before – open-mouthed for 3km and then back out again. The despite the book and the passing of terror. He’d seen something behind her next thing she remembers, she was on time. She walks to a chair facing the that she could not see. land. She was alive, but she was alone. n the first few hours, sitting shocked window. “I want to see the view,” she And then she was adrift, spinning in and battered in a local hospital, says. In a charcoal sweater, gold earthe water. She remembers feeling a Sonali had flashes of hope which she rings and little make-up, she has a warm heavy pressure on her chest. She wonpresence, a natural beauty. She describes dered if she was being crushed by some- quickly tamped down, trying to prepare the morning the waves rushed in. thing, perhaps the jeep. “Apparently, herself for the worst. As the hours Sonali knew she had to move fast. this is what it feels like when you’re turned into days with no sign of her Clutching each of her boys by the hand, drowning,” she explains. “I can’t really family, she entered a “netherworld”, as she rushed away from the hotel with describe how bad the pain was. You she describes it, not wanting to hear the Steve, passing the room where her parwant to die.” In the water, she thought truth. She went to her aunt’s house ents were staying. The entire family had about how, moments earlier, she’d been in Colombo, retreating into a dark come to the coast for a holiday. Sonali, in the hotel with the boys, having a room, barely able to speak or think. Steve, a British academic, and the kids normal morning. Vik was reading The Within days, she would learn that the had flown in from London; her parents Hobbit. The night before he’d made a fuss unthinkable had indeed happened: her had travelled from the Sri Lankan city about a lime green shirt. He didn’t want entire family was gone. Five of them, of Colombo. In the chaos of the moment, to wear it; he hated long sleeves. Now just like that. Her parents and elder son, Sonali didn’t stop to knock at her she was churning helplessly in surging Vik, were found first, in early January. parents’ door. She remembers being water. “I was convinced I was dream- It would take four months for Steve and Malli to be identified by DNA testing.  conscious of that for a fleeting instant. ing.” To check, she pinched herself.  “There’s still the disbelief that it “It would have taken me just one extra Sonali still has a vivid memory of second,” she says now, speaking in a soft, that pinch. She also remembers the happened,” she says. “I’m still stunned. The pain is physical South Asian accent. almost. Not almost “But something in – it is physical.” my brain was telling She pauses. “There me to run.”  IT HAPPENED. THE PAIN IS PHYSICAL ALMOST. was no reason why In the hotel SONALI DERANIYAGALA it had to be them driveway, a jeep was and why I survived. speeding away; the driver saw the family and hit the brakes. moment she thought she would die. It happens. Nature does these things. Sonali and her family raced towards She felt she must stay alive for the sake But there’s no bigger reason.” In those early days, a kind of the vehicle and flung themselves in of her boys, but still she knew she madness descended. Sonali went lookthe back. The jeep lurched forward.  It couldn’t beat this powerful force.  was then that Sonali panicked about her “There were two things: thinking ing for an outlet for her rage and grief: parents. She still struggles to find peace I don’t want to die, and also giving up. she banged her head on her headboard; with the memory today. “I suppose It’s not what I would have expected,” burnt her skin with cigarettes. She quesI was doing what a mother would do,” she says. She thought she would have tioned why she had to grab that branch. she reasons. “You think something fought as hard as she could. “It was such After she heard the news, she fully terrible is coming and you want to proa flimsy response to death on my part. intended to kill herself, she says. The tect your kids. At the same time, you’re I guess I knew there was something only thing that stopped her was fear of hoping it’s not something terrible and, I couldn’t fight against. And in those making things worse. “I was really afraid of course, your parents will walk out.” moments when I was sure I was dying, that I’ll do it but I’ll mess it up,” she says. Sonali never saw her mother and there was so much confusion: Am “It was always: what if I get only half the results I want? It would be problemfather again. And the jeep never made I dreaming? Am I not dreaming?” it past the driveway of the hotel. It turns out she was a fighter. atic.” She manages to laugh at this.  She dragged herself through each Engine straining, the vehicle fought to “Something pushed me to the top of the outpace the waves but the water won, water,” she recalls. “I was floating on day by blocking out memories, sights, flooding in, engulfing ankles, knees my back; I could see the sky.” And then sounds. The simplest thing could and then chests. As Sonali and Steve she spotted a branch: it hung out over remind her of her family: a blade of struggled to hold the boys above the the water and she knew she must grab grass made her think of Vik, a nature rising water, Sonali looked at her it. She almost sailed past it on the lover, playing in the garden; flowers husband and saw an expression she had rushing wave, which was moving about reminded her of theatrical Malli, who

“There was no reason why it had to be them and why I survived,” says Sonali.








A poster bearing five-year-old Malli’s picture asks for information on his whereabouts.

to manage it differently.  On a visit to Yala, Sonali was able to look up at the hawks Vik loved to watch.  Even that would place them in her hair. A minehad been too loaded a sight before, but field of memories lurked outside the on that day, she says, “I wanted to see.” door. “I couldn’t bear to come out Later, she took a boat trip to see the blue because I would come out and expect whales – another favourite creature of to have the boys, hold their hands. her children. Instead of thinking about Everything was terrifying.” She stayed how her sons couldn’t see them, she in the room, shut off from the world. appreciated the whales on their behalf.  When friends opened the curtains Today, Sonali does the only thing one day, she saw a paradise flycatcher, anyone can do: she simply “puts one a beautiful, long-tailed bird – and foot in front of the other”. She still immediately turned away. Vik loved struggles when strangers ask about her birds. She escaped into vodka, wine, life, never sure what to say. As she writes whiskey and sleeping pills. It helped in Wave, “I am evasive in order to spare her sleep, which was a horror in itself, myself. I imagine saying those words she explains, because every time she – ‘My family, they are all dead, in an woke she would remember afresh.  instant they vanished’ – and I reel.” She It took months to muster the doesn’t want to speculate on whether strength to visit her parents’ deserted she might start a family again one day. house. Consumed by the loss of her She often visits her home in London husband and sons, Sonali had been unand she can now find some joy in her able to focus on the death of her mother memories. She has learnt, she says, that and father. But there, in her childhood “to be with your grief, you have to allow home, she cautiously allowed in some it in to some extent. My challenge has memories. She remembered how her been to allow it in and hold it … rather mother had taught that suppress it, Vik to play “Silent squash it.” Night” on the piano. Several years She thought about after the tsunami, SHIRT THAT VIK HAD GRUMBLED ABOUT ON CHRISTMAS DAY. how Malli had told on another visit to Vik in this house Yala, Sonali learnt a that he could see haunting fact: the ing what happened. It was too big to his dreams better in the dark. local man who had found her that hold in your heart at any one time.”  She confronted another fear that December morning had seen her in Gradually, Sonali let herself year as well: visiting Yala, the coastal a highly unusual state. Covered in mud, national park where the tragedy had remember her lost life. In 2007, on naked from the waist down, she was occurred. Sonali had been terrified to a drive in the English countryside with standing and spinning round and round, return for fear of seeing reminders of friends, the fading light took her back like a child trying to make herself dizzy. her family. Memories were not a com- to a car trip with her family. She let Perhaps she had been swirling that way fort. They were like little bombs. “You’re the details tumble in, recalling Malli’s in the water. “It  was a chilling moment so afraid to know and to remember, and new hiking shoes, Vik’s interest in when I heard that,” she explains. “It still to know what was yours a minute ago, to a flock of starlings. For once, she didn’t doesn’t seem real that that was me.”  know your own children, to know your cut short her thoughts. Is she glad today that she grabbed Nearly four years after the tsunami, that branch? She won’t say yes or no, but parents, your husband,” she explains. Sonali found the courage to revisit simply, “It happened.” Then she pauses. “My trauma took that form; such fear.”  Yet on that visit, she had a turning the home in London where she had “I think someone had to stay, just to point. In that ravaged place, her lived with Steve and the kids. When tell the tale,” she says, referring to the father-in-law had said a few words to his she first stepped in, she wailed. Two lives of her family, which she describes late son, speaking aloud to the sky. And small red schoolbags hung on a door vividly in the book, keeping their right then, something fluttered at his handle. The boys’ shoes sat by the quirks, their thoughts, their dreams foot. He ignored it, but it kept flapping. kitchen door. That night, she was alive. “And for that reason, I think it was I It was a laminated page of a research undone by an eyelash that lay on Steve’s probably worth it, to stay behind.” Wave: A Memoir Of Life After report, demanding to be seen. Sonali’s pillow. Still, the visit was a milestone.  Time and therapy helped her cope. The Tsunami (Virago, $24.99) husband, an economics expert like his wife, had written it. The page had sur- The pain didn’t go away, but she learnt is on sale now. vived the waves, the wind, even the monsoons that had followed the tsunami. “That I can’t explain,” says Sonali. After that, she was no longer afraid of discovering bits of her family life. “That was the beginning of my reaching out to our life in a way, looking for things that were ours.” She began actively searching, revisiting the remnants of their hotel. Under a bush, partly buried in the sand, she found the lime green shirt that Vik had grumbled about wearing on Christmas Day. Steve had rolled up the sleeves for his son that night. There, in the sand, one of the sleeves was still rolled up.  wo years after the tsunami, Sonali moved to New York City, where a cousin lived, and where she now works as a research scholar in economics at Columbia University. She began seeing a therapist. “He became my lifeline,” she reveals. He encouraged her to talk about her children. “I told him it would kill me. He said, ‘No, it won’t.’” He also suggested she write. “It gave me a real focus. It was my way of understand-