A Profile of Sonali Deraniyagala


Tim Adams in The Observer:

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 orAusterlitz – was cracked open for wayward discussion. And there was Sonali, smiling as if she would never stop.