What will you remember of the people you love? Many of us have had that thought from time to time, but no one I know has ever had to give it the attention that Sonali Deraniyagala has given it.
Versions of that question took hold in her head in the days after Christmas 2004, and they have never left. She had spent that Christmas with her family on holiday from their home in London at a nature reserve, Yala, in the south of her native Sri Lanka. On Boxing Day she looked out of her hotel room window and noticed that the sea was behaving a bit oddly. Just that. It had come further up the beach than before. What she was seeing was in fact the first sign of the wave – she didn't yet know the word tsunami, few of us did – that would in the minutes that followed sweep away all of the life she knew. She would be carried on that unfathomable water for nearly two miles inland, survive only by clinging to the branch of a tree, and it would claim the lives of her husband, Steve Lissenburgh, then 40, her two young sons, Vikram, seven, and Nikhil (or Malli as he was known, "little brother"), five, and those of her parents, who were staying in the room next door. And after the water had gone, the questions of remembering, and the related ones, of how to go on living, flooded in, inundated her.
I first knew Sonali not as the bearer of all those terrible facts, the asker of those questions, but as a fabulous smile. About 10 years ago, as was then compulsory in north London, my wife Lisa joined a little book group of four with her close friend Sarah. Sonali, whose son Vikram was a best friend of Sarah's son Noah, was one of the four. I remember Lisa coming back from the first meeting and saying how she had met this great woman, a lecturer in economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, super clever and sharply funny, and who never stopped laughing. In the weeks and months that followed, that latter observation seemed to me literally true. I'd usually make myself scarce on book-club nights at our house, pausing just to say extended hellos as wine bottles were clattering in the kitchen and that week's offering – Brick Lane or Austerlitz – was cracked open for wayward discussion. And there was Sonali, smiling as if she would never stop.
In the days after Christmas that year we happened to be away in Devon with our mutual friend Sarah when the news of the wave was breaking everywhere. TV screens were full of impossible water, but facts, in the absence of phone lines, were hard to come by. Sarah by now had word that Sonali had been caught in the worst of those TV pictures. She was safe, we heard, had been taken back to the family home in Colombo, but so far Steve and the boys and her parents had not been found. Family and friends were looking, posting pictures on trees and railings, frantically searching. Hundreds of thousands were dead or missing; but it was chaos, so there was still a chance. As that new year began, though, the hope of a different ending faded, and then was extinguished. In the first week of January Vikram's body was identified along with those of Sonali's parents. Four months later, Steve's and Nikhil's DNA was discovered by a lab in Austria that had been testing the exhumed bodies from one of Sri Lanka's hastily dug mass graves.
In the eight years that have passed since, my news of Sonali has mostly been secondhand. How was she? never quite seemed an appropriate question. To begin with, for six months, her friends and family kept a constant suicide watch over her at her uncle's home in Colombo, where she was unable to leave her bed or bear light in the room. Then, from Sarah, we heard stories of Sonali drinking and crazy with grief, Sonali despairing of therapists or taking trips to wild places, the Arctic, Iceland, craving cold and whiteness to blank out the pain of birthdays or anniversaries. It took her a long time to face coming back to London, and much longer still – more than four years – to contemplate walking into the house in Friern Barnet that was just as she and Steve and the boys had left it – preserved intact by her friends – when they had set off for that Christmas holiday in the sun. In the meantime, she had moved to New York, where she found the first psychiatrist who seemed to make any sense; tentatively restarted her academic career, now at Columbia university, focusing on the mechanics of disaster recovery while working all the time in private on her intensely personal version of that discipline. About three years ago, Sarah said Sonali had started writing about what had happened, and then that the writing had become a book, and then, much to Sonali's shock and surprise, that the book had been the subject of bidding wars and auctions and all the rest, among publishers across the world.
When we meet now in her little apartment in west Greenwich Village, Sonali has the first hardback copies in a cardboard box by the door. She hands me one, a small black book with a simple wave, in white, along the bottom of the front cover. On the back are quotes from her literary heroes, Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking: "an amazing, beautiful book", and from Michael Ondaatje: "the most powerful and haunting book I have read in years". Sonali can still produce her unstoppable grin, and she smiles broadly at the book as a parent might at a child, carefully wipes a few flecks of dust from its cover: "It's pretty weird, right?"
The book itself, which I have been living with for the previous week or two in a proof copy from the British publisher, Virago, is much more than that, though: it is a kind of wonder of memory. It begins, of course, with the wave, but then it loops and circles back into Sonali's world before those brutal tectonic plates shifted, using recaptured fragments of objects and sensation to conjure magically the lives of those she loved and lost. She thought about a lot of it in her daily walks along the Hudson river a few blocks from her apartment, and we walk out in that direction now, to a little neighbourhood cafe, to talk.
Sonali came to New York at the end of 2006, partly to be near her therapist and lifeline, but also craving some anonymity. In Colombo where she had been living, everyone knew her and her story, and when she eventually started to leave her uncle's house she knew people were looking and thinking "She's out!" and wondering what she might do next. In New York she could begin what she laughingly calls her "witness-protection-programme life". Colleagues and acquaintances assumed she was a single visiting academic having a nice time in Manhattan, and she was happy to let them do so.
Her therapist, Mark Epstein, first suggested she should write some things down to make sense of them, and eventually she was persuaded. To begin with she wanted to explore for herself what happened to her in the water. She had, of course, by then long been cast into the role of desperately reluctant Robinson Crusoe, telling versions of her own survival to those blunt enough to ask, and of course, over and over, to herself.
Even so, she says "it remained such a bewildering experience that I thought I should try to set it down. Step by step. And as I did some startling bits of memory returned to me. I now know I was in the water for about 20 minutes and for most of it I had no idea of what was happening. But there were details. When I started piecing it together I remembered floating on my back on the surface of the water at one point and seeing storks flying overhead. I remembered that strange momentary thought process – forgetting for a moment all of the chaos – and thinking "what birds are those?" And then seeing a child in the water screaming "Daddy! Daddy!", thinking it was Malli, realising it was not. Then the moment when I saw the tree branch and worked out how to get my arms up out of the water to catch it…"
So she wrote a version of that and put it away, didn't show it to anyone for years. She was going back to London from time to time, though still not to the house, and to Sri Lanka, sometimes down to Yala where it had all happened, searching the flattened hotel and the jungle for clues to the life that had been taken away, looking out for the sea eagles that Vikram, "who for a nearly eight-year-old knew heaps about birds", had been so thrilled by. And when she got back to New York she would write a page here and there. "And then I realised as I was writing I was making these complete sort of memory pieces."
This was something new. Immediately after the wave, memory had been Sonali's sworn enemy. Too terrifying to contemplate. "For a long time my whole defence had been to try not to remember anything of our lives before," she says. "It was anyway all so kind of unnervingly dreamlike that I sometimes had the feeling, you know, did the life before the wave really exist at all? Had they all ever existed? They were blurred, and I thought, let it all be a blur. Let everything be a blur." She wanted to scratch out the word "Mum" that kept invading her head.
Even the most mundane details became charged with unbearable import. "I couldn't tolerate a blade of grass," she writes in her book. "That's where Vik would have stamped." She lived in fear of children's books, the associative terror of Clifford the Big Red Dog. The writing allowed her to begin to explore those details, though, and reading it now allows you to begin to understand just a little of how that might have felt.
"It's still how the world looks to me," she says. "Even now. I mean something as simple as the smell of laundry from the washing machine and I will suddenly be taken back into the life we had. Or finding a plastic dinosaur under a bush in our old garden, and it's as if you have found a real skeleton of some life that is extinct. Did they really once play with that under here?"
Through her therapy she was learning that though it was agony remembering, it was a much better quality of agony than not remembering. The writing gave her a secondary purpose, in that she had to find the right word for what she was describing. She always wrote in the same place, curled up in the corner of her bed in her Manhattan apartment. "Ten hours could suddenly go by," she says. "It was quite cocoon-like, and it had the safety of not seeing anything except what I was writing about. So I could transport myself back to us."
She kept it to herself, and a few friends, until her therapist persuaded her to send a few pages to Michael Ondaatje, her fellow Sri Lankan, whom she had happened to meet a year earlier at a dinner at a friend's house. It was unnerving because Ondaatje had been something of a hero not just to Sonali but to her husband, Steve, who was fanatical about his books. When she eventually did return to the house in Friern Barnet, she found one of them, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, open on Steve's desk. So she sent off 30 pages, and, when Ondaatje responded immediately, she sent the rest.
Sonali is approaching publication of the book this week with a lot of trepidation, not least because many people, particularly colleagues in New York and neighbours in the apartment block where she lives, don't know her story.
"One of my main problems," she says of her life, "has been that I can't bear to stun people. I don't want them to be aghast." She has had to develop strategies to avoid the usual questions: Do you have kids? What does your husband do? Partly this is self-preservation. "Every time I see someone else's face stunned, then I am kind of restunned myself. The horror reflects back. I had a drink recently with a colleague at Columbia and I thought she knew, and I mentioned my book, and I realised she didn't know what it was about. So I had to sort of drop the bombshell on her." She smiles at the irony. "It's mad but I am always apologising; 'I'm so sorry to tell you this…' "
The book is punctuated with that kind of surreality, things that she can only laugh at now. In her original insanity of grief, full of pills and drinking too much, she did all kinds of things. She dragged one friend along a beach in Sri Lanka in the early hours because she had a desperate craving to see a turtle laying eggs. The friend, Lester, noted: "It's Friday night. I could be in London, I could be down the pub. What am I doing on a godforsaken beach looking up a turtle's arse?" She became wildly angry that her brother had cleared and rented their parents' house, and with it all traces of her boys and Steve, and her mum and dad. She decided to haunt the Dutch family who were living there, to force them out. She would park outside at two in the morning and play Steve's favourite Smiths track, Bigmouth Strikes Again, at top volume. Wake them with phone calls. "It was," she says now, "quite liberating for me. But they were so reasonable. They were trying to reason with me, I was trying to be a ghost. They were all 'maybe we can talk. I think you have problems', and I was just 'WOOOO!'"
She felt trapped, "constantly pissed off" by people's expectations of how she should behave. Some seemed to think she should become a kind of Mother Teresa and do good works. Others expected her to kill herself, and thought it strange when she didn't. And then there were the books. "For some reason everyone seemed to think I would want to read about Holocaust survivors," she says. "There was this one book by Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, which kind of piled up next to my bed. Everyone brought it. Of course they meant well by it, but it just seemed too surreal to me. I mean one minute I was at home in north London, getting the boys ready for school, the next people were comparing my life to the Holocaust."
People would tell her there was a reason she survived, but she never bought that. Or they would say, Steve would want you to be happy, or the kids would want you to be happy. But actually, she says: "When I thought about it, and if I put him in my situation, I'd kick his head in if I thought he was happy without us!" Those with religious faith offered explanations, or worse; one woman in a village in the south of Sri Lanka told her: "God, you must have really sinned in your previous lives to bring this on yourself."
Her therapist is a medical doctor, but has written on aspects of Buddhist psychology. Sonali is sceptical about a lot of it, but if any frame of reference helped at all, she says, it was just that sense of "finding a space to feel suffering as well as joy, and realising one was an aspect of the other. To open yourself to everything." Other than that, she says, "you realise life is in those hundreds of individual details. The hardest thing was to reimmerse myself in that. Just to think what it was like back in the kitchen, with Vikram and Malli messing around and Steve making an omelette or something. You have so many defences preventing you from imagining that. You think you will go mad with wanting it back."
One of the things that comes home fully in reading the book is that all childhoods are about transience, every day, and all parenting is about mourning little bits of that passing. Reading it, I tell her, I was thinking, as I imagine many readers will think, could I do this? Would I be able to bring to life these details of fleeting family life, little paradises lost?
"Well, you could," she says. "And I could only do it because I was forced to. I mean, it's what you do all the time at the end of the day, talking about the kids with each other, guess what Vik did, you should have seen Malli do that… We are always storing those bits up, and they are what came back to me. I don't have anything more profound to say than that. It's funny, I don't use the word love much in the book. But of course that is what it is about, their love for me and mine for them."
We walk out into the late morning sun in search of somewhere to go for lunch. I'm struck again by the disjunction of her lives, the one she carries in her head, and the one that rushes insistently around her on these New York streets, and the way she has sought to reconcile them.
One of the stranger things that Sonali discovered about the wave came from a friend who happened to speak to the man who found her immediately after the water had begun to subside. When he got to her, Sonali was, the man recalled, covered in thick black mud, coughing blood, and spinning around and around on the spot like a child would to make herself dizzy. She has no recollection of that, but supposes it must be true, and when she talks about what came after, she often uses the phrase "spinning" to describe her world. "I was still spinning," she will say, of the times when she was plagued by the idea, is this me? Could this really be my life?
That spin that she first felt in the water was the most destructive of centrifugal forces; it separated her from every single thing she held dear. She has a forensic eye for words these days, and the one she most often uses to describe the horror of that day is "dispersal"; everything close to her suddenly became randomly scattered. Like the green shirt of her son Vikram, the sleeve still rolled up as he liked it, which she found in one of her foraging missions to Yala many months after the water had gone, or the beloved cricket ball that the boys used to bowl to Steve, king of dads, which she braces herself to weigh in her hand back in the London house.
People talked to Sonali a lot about memorials over the years: there is an annual lecture in Steve's name at the Policy Studies Institute, where he worked as a research fellow, but though she loves to attend, it has never seemed enough, too partial. She wanted something weightier, with more substance, more alive. Her writing surprised her by offering her something of that possibility. It allowed her to collect up all the dispersed traces of her family, the innumerable scattered fragments that proved they had lived and loved, and hold them in one place again. Her world as a result is steadier, has stopped spinning so wildly.
She is not sure where the future will take her. She spends more time now in the house in Friern Barnet, which is still exactly as it was. "I think I should change it sometimes," she says, "and no doubt the boys would have cringed at the idea that their playroom is as they left it, but it works for me to keep it like that. You pick up the phone and there is a note there that Vikram left: Dad where is my DVD? People come in and imagine they have just stepped out, which I love. There are a few telltale signs, of course: a Guardian from 2004, from the weekend before we left. But it is still us…"
She can't imagine living there full time but loves now to come and go. And of course she will carry on writing. "The sooner the better, I think," she says. "It is very stabilising for me. When I came to New York I was on all kinds of medications. When I started writing I got rid of all of them." The only painkiller she carried was the book that became most special to her, Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, his great homage to the power of life and nature after the passing of his wife. "It's odd to say but I found that really helped with the actual physical pain," she says. "I'd had every kind of antidepressant, but they completely numb you really. I just decided to try without them."
I wonder if she can begin to think at all of her life as not just befores and afters but as a single piece? She thinks about it. "More and more I can," she says. "You wonder how much of yourself will remain. But I guess your disposition doesn't change. I remember being furious when one friend came to see me and reported back that I was still the same Sonali. I wrote a long email saying I wasn't, I never would be the same. I'd lost too much of who I was. But she was right in a way. And I know now they will never stop being part of me as they always were." She smiles her fabulous smile. "The book has allowed me to bring them close, keep them close," she says.
It’s 4am on the 12th April. I am sat in Phuket airport and I’ve been staring at the same spot on the floor for two hours, desperately trying to make sense of what has just happened to me.
Today, I was convinced I was going to die.
At 3:30 pm on the 11th April 2012, a huge earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Right now, that’s the only information I have.
At the time, I was on a boat back to Phuket after an amazing week spent in Koh Yao Noi. I was happily sunbathing on the ferry, working on my tan when about half-way through the journey I felt a large bump. Several of them as the boat swayed slightly from side to side. Being the paranoid, anxiety-filled individual that I am, my head was immediately filled with irrational fears – What was that? Did we just hit something? What if it made a hole in the boat? Are we going to sink? Maybe we hit a shark? Are there sharks out here?!
Little did I know, for the first time in my life, the reality was far worse than my paranoia.
Unaware that anything had happened, we arrived at Phuket where a very nervous taxi driver was waiting for us.
“You feel earthquake? Earthquake 30 minutes before you arrive. Very big one. Very scary.”
Dave and I shrugged and told her that we’d been on the water and hadn’t felt anything. However, I couldn’t help but start to feel a little worried. I’d experienced an earthquake for the first time while in Taiwan and at a magnitude of just 4.5, it was enough to have me freaked out for days afterwards.
All I could think about was getting to the airport and getting out of Phuket before the aftershocks started to hit.
Arriving at the airport, I noticed an unusual amount of people crowding around outside. Our driver asked the security guard if the airport was still open. It was. Phuket airport has bag scanners located at the entrance to the building and I had just taken off my backpack to get it scanned when suddenly,
The air filled with gasps and screams and as I raised my eyes in confusion I saw every single person in the airport simultaneously stampeding towards me wearing the same look of terror on their faces.
I instantly reached for Dave. “Dave! What’s happening? What’s going on?! What do we do? What’s–“
…And then I realised.
There’s a bomb.
I stopped talking, dropped everything and launched myself towards the exit, running faster than I ever have before. I tripped, I stumbled, I almost fell to the ground on several occasions but nothing could stop me getting out of there.
With the pain in my side increasing until it felt like I was being ripped in half, I barely even noticed the growing ache in my chest, the trembling of my legs and the pins and needles in my face.
After reaching what felt like a much safer distance I immediately tried to find out what was happening.
“There has been very big earthquake. Big aftershocks. Tsunami is coming. Like last time.”
I stood motionless for a minute, unable to move, unable to think, unable to process what was happening. As I came to my senses, all I knew was that I had to find Dave.
We had become separated at some point, and so I did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do in situations like these. I turned around and started running back towards the airport.
I fought my way through the hoards of frantic people – Everybody was either running, screaming or crying. It was like a scene from a disaster movie. Parents were launching their children into songthaews and yelling at the drivers to take them to higher ground, children were near hysterical with fear and I was being pushed and shoved from every direction as everybody fought to save themselves.
I raced back, desperately scanning every petrified face, searching for a glimpse of familiarity, but nothing. My heart sank. I reached the airport, walked inside and it was like a ghost town – just a few people were left now.
And then I saw our bags.
I don’t know what was going through my mind, but I knew I had to bring them with me. I pulled my three bags onto my back and front, and then dragged Dave’s one off the conveyor belt.
I found a luggage trolley, lifted Dave’s bag onto it with a superhuman strength that I wasn’t aware I possessed and began to run like my life depended on it. Because, well, at that moment, it did.
I usually struggle to carry my bags for more than 100 metres at a time, so trying to run with three bags while pushing another uphill was like trying to solve a maths equation with a poem.
Within seconds, my clothes were drenched with sweat, my face was burning up, and I felt like I was going to vomit. My back felt like it was about to break and my legs threatened to give way at any second.
Running parallel to the runway, I spent half my time colliding with people, cars and scooters, and the other half frantically looking behind me, expecting to see a tidal wave engulfing the airport.
Over and over, I considered ditching the bags by the side of the road. I didn’t want to die because I’d tried to rescue all of my belongings. But how can I just leave everything here to be stolen?
I could feel the fatigue setting in and I was growing weaker and weaker with each passing step. As the road started to get steeper, I could hear myself bursting into tears and pleading for help with my trolley. Not a single person even acknowledged my existence.
Fortunately, after a few minutes of begging, somebody finally took pity on me and helped to push my trolley uphill. I thanked him over and over and over, before quietening down to just whimpering about how scared I am.
“We’re all scared, love” was his grim reply.
After what felt like hours, we finally reached the evacuation point: An area of ground raised not much more than 2 metres above the road.
This isn’t high enough. We’re not high enough. I need to get higher.
Looking around, my knees began to buckle and tears welled in my eyes, causing the horrific scene to writhe before me. As I watched frantic people climbing on top of walls, trees and buildings, a woman collapsed on my shoulder in tears.
“We’re all going to die. My babies. I’ll never see my babies again. My family. Help me. Please, God.”
I held her tightly as we both cried hysterically. My only thought at that point was: I am going to die alone.
And then, an arm on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek.
Dave had found me.
I couldn’t even speak as the tears streamed down my face. I clutched at him desperately, promising to myself to not let go until all of this is over.
My joy was short-lived as an official announcement was made over the loudspeakers: It has been confirmed. A tsunami is heading our way. It is thought to be four metres high and it is due to hit in twenty minutes.
I spent those minutes panicing, crying and murmuring complete and utter nonsense at Dave.
And suddenly, silence.
Every single person stopped speaking. The birds stopped singing and the breeze felt noticeably cooler.
As I looked around in confusion and unease, I could hear a faint hissing noise in the distance, increasing in volume with every passing minute. As I scanned the faces of the crowd I could see the sheer terror and panic on everybody’s face.
The tsunami was coming and it was at this point that I really lost it.
“No. NO! Dave. I love you. Oh my god. Don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die. I’m so scared. Dave. I can’t die. Oh my god. What’s happening? Please. Please. PLEASE.”
Squeezing his hand so tightly that I thought I might break his bones, I turned to face the runway and prepared to die.
I was going to die.
As the noise reached almost deafening levels, a large plane slowly came into view… The entire crowd breathed a loud sigh of relief and started to cheer and laugh.
I’d have felt embarrassed if I wasn’t bent over, dry-heaving in a bush.
My knees gave way and I collapsed on the floor amid a flood of tears. I was done. I couldn’t take any more. The adrenaline had gone, I had no energy left and no will to live.
I just wanted the nightmare to end.
There had been no further updates on the situation so all we could do was sit and speculate.
With a small amount of data left on Dave’s phone, we would check Twitter every 10 minutes to see if there were any updates. Everywhere has been evacuated. There have been two more aftershocks. The tsunami is due to hit within an hour. The wave is four metres high. The wave is one metre high. The wave isn’t going to reach us.
This was interspersed with information from the crowd, with some people stating how it had been the biggest earthquake in history, that the ocean in Phuket had receded over one kilometre, that everybody in hotels in Thailand would have to stay there for three days and that we were all going to die.
I didn’t know what to believe, but I couldn’t allow myself to believe that we were going to be ok.
There was another announcement: If nothing bad happens within two hours everybody will be free to go.
The slowest two hours of my entire life. And definitely not the calmest either.
The data on Dave’s phone had run out so we had no access to any information. We could just pace back and forth like everyone else, waiting to be told that we would all be ok.
As trucks of airline crews were transported to the evacuation area, the final announcement was made:
We were ok. The airport was going to reopen in half an hour and our flights would depart at some point after that.
I should have felt relieved, I should have felt happy, I should have joined in with the cheers and dancing of everybody else, but I just felt numb. I felt empty and spent the next few hours in a trance, barely speaking, just staring straight ahead with eyes glazed over.
The rest of the night flew by in a blur:
Slowly trudging back to the airport in the dark. Joining the queue to check in. Finding out that all flights have been cancelled and that all flights tomorrow are full up. Spending the night lying on the airport floor, unable to sleep. Every small noise waking me up and filling me with fear and dread.
And that’s where I am now.
Alive. But very much shaken up, emotionally scarred and desperate to get out of Phuket.
Afterword: After Dave started queueing at 4am to get us put on the standby list, we were fortunate enough to get on the first flight to Chiang Mai the next morning.
It was then that I discovered the “tsunami” was, in fact, 10 cm high. Five people died. Mostly due to shock and heart attacks. I’m surprised I wasn’t one of them…
And so, I guess this is now a ridiculously over-dramatic post about a 10 cm wave.
But it was, without a doubt, the scariest day of my entire life…
[Images via: Twicepix/Flickr, Mollivan_Jon/Flickr, timbodon/Flickr, astanhope/Flickr]