“Storytelling reminds us that other forms of capital exist, such as social capital”: Shankari Chandran

The Sri Lankan-Australian writer is the winner of the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award for her novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens.

Published : Aug 25, 2023 17:25 IST - 11 MINS READ

Shankari Chandran

Shankari Chandran | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The Czech author Milan Kundera, who passed away in July, said that “the stupidity of people comes from having an answer to everything [while the] wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything.” By this yardstick, the novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, by the Sri-Lankan Australian writer Shankari Chandran, is wise indeed. It raises a host of penetrating questions about national identity, the role of history in forging this identity, how developmental and socio-economic trauma shapes a person’s character, and the extent to which the personal is political. Yet these questions emerge organically from an engrossing story peopled with vividly-drawn characters and told in elegant prose. Chai Time is Chandran’s third novel, coming after Song of the SunGod and The Barrier.

For its many virtues, the novel won Australia’s annual Miles Franklin Literary Award on July 25. First given in 1957, the prize, according to its founders, aims to recognise “a novel which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.” Chandran belongs to a cohort of distinguished authors with roots in Sri Lanka who write in English, such as Anuk Arudpragasam, Michael Ondaatje, Nayomi Munaweera, Romesh Gunasekara, Shyam Selvadurai, and Shehan Karunatilaka.

Cover of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

Cover of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Chai Time is set in contemporary Australia, in a nurturing old-age nursing home in Sydney started by Sri Lankan Tamil refugees but open to all. The novel keeps flashing back to Sri Lanka during the country’s nearly four-decade civil war, which ended in 2009, as Chandran weaves in her Tamil characters’ backstories. The novel charts their twin traumas: racism in their adopted country after having fled persecution at home. But it also celebrates their resilience. Chandran does a fine job of developing the novel’s two important white Australian characters, a couple, a turning point in whose relationship explodes into the public realm and makes the nursing home the site of a larger, national political conflict. Excerpts from an interview with Chandran:

The old-age nursing home in your novel shows how a sense of community can greatly enhance people’s well-being. Have you experienced life in such a community?

The nursing home is based on the real-life one where my grandmother, Ammamma, lived the last years of her life. It’s a warm and loving place where many of the residents are Sri Lankan Tamil, as are many of the staff and carers. The residents know each other from “back home”, as they say. When we visited my Ammamma, we would run into our cousins and friends who were visiting their Ammammas and Appappas. In any one resident’s room, there would be up to four generations of families, talking, laughing, fighting, listening, and learning. We would take Ammamma for a walk along the corridors, and as we passed the rooms of other residents, she would tell us their stories as well as hers. They often involved secrets and complaints about her friends that stemmed from their shared youth. As she aged, her memories of her past were more vivid, and in some ways more real to her than her present-day reality. I thought this nursing home was a beautiful place of community and would make a beautiful setting for a novel.

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Do capitalism and the atomising forces of modernity make the creation of such microcosms increasingly difficult?

Absolutely, which is why storytelling is so important—to remind us of what actually enriches our lives, to remind us that other forms of capital exist, such as social capital. Storytelling can remind us that we are capable of doing, being, and creating more.

The lead characters, Maya, who set up the nursing home, and Ruben, who works there, are erudite and highly talented.Did you create them first and the story next or vice versa? Did you model them on people you know?

Maya and Ruben have lived inside my mind for a few years, both asking for a novel to be created for them, one that explored dispossession, erasure, and the relationships we create as a consequence. I knew Ruben was a linguist and that Maya would be connected to the Jaffna Library and a hidden temple. They were the book’s clear emotional anchors and the axles around which the other characters would revolve. Their characters came first, then the themes, and then the story.My characters are an amalgam and variation of people I know, people I love, people I want to see brought to justice, and people I want to be.

A man waves Sri Lanka’s national flag after climbing a tower near the presidential secretariat in Colombo on July 11, 2022, when it was overrun by anti-government protestors.

A man waves Sri Lanka’s national flag after climbing a tower near the presidential secretariat in Colombo on July 11, 2022, when it was overrun by anti-government protestors. | Photo Credit: Arun SANKAR / AFP

You weave in the history of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and that of the more recent civil war. You also describe the milieu of the Australian far right. How much research did you have to do?

My research about Tamil history and the civil war was extensive. I conducted it over several years for my first novel, Song of the Sun God, which traverses seven decades, three generations, and three continents. That book prepared me for Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, but here, I narrowed the storytelling lens to focus on two very specific moments in our history—the burning of the Jaffna Library and the end of the civil war.

As for the milieu of the Australian far right, I’m surrounded by it. Research involved paying attention. I’ve just got to turn on the TV and watch the right or wrong media, depending on your political persuasion. The rhetoric of the right that I “created” in the novel is paraphrased from actual public figures. You can’t make this stuff up.

A Sri Lankan Tamil scholar in your novel says that possessing land is nine-tenths of the law, but possessing history is nine-tenths of the future. Majoritarianism and settler colonialism often attempt to erase and distort the history of minorities and indigenous people respectively. But dwelling on historical disputes and the real and imagined sins of a community’s alleged forebears, as is happening in India with Muslims, can also spur hatred and division in the present. The role of history in forging a nation’s identity is complicated, isn’t it?

Chai Time looks at the way in which both in Australia and Sri Lanka, historical narratives and mythologies about the origins of those countries have been appropriated in order to frame who has the right to be there and who does not. In Sri Lanka, the battle for territorial legitimacy begins with the battle of contested histories and competing mythologies, remembered and codified in conflicting archives.

Who arrived first: Was it the Sinhalese Buddhists or Tamil Hindus? Each side selects its creation story to construct its origins narrative. This mythologised rendering of history was used to claim Sri Lanka for the Sinhalese and frame the Hindu Tamils as usurpers from India who arrived later, to steal the country from them. This history helped drive changes to the country’s constitution and laws that entrenched the supremacy of one people over another.

In Australia, the same mythologised rendering of history framed this country as a white one, “discovered” by Europeans for Europeans, with that identity asserted through the overt White Australia Policy and the more insidious notions of “un-Australian” values. It has shaped everything from how we recognise First Nations’ sovereignty, or don’t recognise it, to whether non-white migrants are considered “real” Australians.

Deconstructing these myths and reclaiming history are an important part of any people asserting their self-determination, at least through cultural agency if not the return of territorial rights. At the same time, there are places in the world where this approach is fraught with peril, with the spurring of hatred and the deepening of divisions.

The questions for me are: who is asking the questions about history and the sins of the past, are they asking from a position of power or vulnerability, and what is the intent of their interrogations? In both Australia and Sri Lanka, the answers to these are the same—the political authority is asking the questions, from a position of power, wrested from others, and they are seeking to hold on to that power using the politics of fear and division to frighten the disparate pieces of their potential base into a unified whole that will protect them.

  • Sri Lankan-Australian author Shankari Chandran’s novel “Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens” won the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award in July.
  • The novel examines the appropriation of historical narratives in Australia and Sri Lanka to define rightful presence and exclusion, addressing origins and belonging.
  • Chandran’s book is grounded in thorough research on Tamil history and the Sri Lankan civil war, contributing depth to its storytelling.

Tell us a bit about your family’s journey to Australia. What is your outlook for Sri Lanka, where a huge popular protest in 2022 fizzled out?

My family left Sri Lanka in the 1970s when the country was heading towards civil war. My father is from Jaffna and my mother from Colombo. My parents went to London and then Australia, where they were both able to find jobs as doctors—Appa is a neurosurgeon, and Amma a GP. I was born in London, and my brother in Canberra, where we were raised.

To get the outlook for Sri Lanka, you should ask the Tamils in the north and the east. I found it intriguing that the popular protest in 2022 sparked up only when the Rajapaksa government’s plundering of state finances finally affected the availability and price of food and energy in the rest of the country. Genocide and human rights abuses, on the other hand, did not lead to widespread popular protest or democratic revolt.

How has Australia evolved for its non-white minorities in the period that you have been there? Has the idea of multi-culturalism become more entrenched?

When we moved to small town Canberra, in the late 1970s, we were amongst the first South Asian families. My parents navigated racism, the pressure to assimilate, and the fear of losing their culture. My childhood was the typical early migrant one—I wasn’t brown enough for our Tamil community or white enough for my white friends. A sense of discomfort and exile was always with me.

A generation later, my children are surrounded by so many communities of so many cultures that make up the masala of this one country. They are taught at school to be open and proud about their cultural heritage. They have the privilege of choosing which parts of it they want to keep and which parts they want to leave behind. They can also learn from and adopt the cultures around them.

Australia is also growing up. It’s flawed, as all countries and all people are; still grappling with its colonial history and often still deeply uncomfortable with it, unwilling and unable to acknowledge the true and ongoing impact of colonisation; energetic about the virtues of multiculturalism but still sometimes prescriptive about the terms and conditions of entry into its society for those who don’t look like its majority.

At the same time, it is working hard to be the united sum of its rich and diverse parts, an Australia that is not the one identity that was sometimes forced on my parents but rather the multiplicities of a rapidly evolving identity, an Australia where there is space for many, and where we are aspiring to be our collective best self. I’m hopeful.

Which writers have influenced you and why? Tell us about two or three.

I greatly admire Rohinton Mistry’s simplicity of expression and attentiveness to detail, which give his work such sophisticated yet accessible observations of all aspects of human life. I also admire Richard Flanagan’s mastery of war-time narrative. He describes the horror and human resistance to its degradations without ever descending into trauma voyeurism or sentimentality.

And there’s Vyasa and the epic to out-epic all epics, the Mahabharata. Hindu mythology appears in all my work in some form because these were the first stories I learned. Karna is often on my mind.

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Tell us a bit about your writing routine, amidst raising four children and working.

I do two morning-writing sprints and two evening-writing sprints, of 30 minutes each, sometime between Monday and Thursday, aiming for 200 words each time. This primes my mind and keeps the world I’m building vivid. On Thursday night I go to sleep and ask my characters, “What are you going to do tomorrow?” On Friday, my writing day, I wake up early, send the children to school, and spend the rest of the day writing hard. I tell myself that I’m aiming for 1,000 words on a Friday, but I’m secretly aiming for 2,000. I can’t create time to write, so I steal it, and increasingly, as I get older, I claim it for myself. I’m much better at giving myself permission to write now. 

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I’m finishing a literary fiction novel, whose working title is Anbu, which will be published in 2024 by Ultimo Press. I’ll also finalise an edit and publish Unfinished Business, an old unpublished manuscript, with Audible Originals, which has been optioned for TV.

Song of the Sun God is currently being adapted for TV with Charithra Chandran, from Bridgerton, Season 2, set to star in it. The TV stuff is fun, so we’ll begin pitching Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens soon. I’d love to see my work on a streaming platform, but in the meantime, it just seems to get me extra credibility with my children. Then I’ll take a break and think about my next novel.

Sumana Ramanan is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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