Interview with Shankari Chandran

“‘Song of the Sun God’ is a novel that interrogates the injustices faced by the Tamil people”

by Krishna Selvaseelan, Tamil Guardian, London, March 20, 2023

I will begin this piece with a confession. In times of emotional distress and crisis, I often watch YouTube clips of the 1991 film ‘Thalapathi’, a film which is a modern retelling of one of my favourite character arcs in all of literature: Karnan from the Hindu epic, ‘The Mahabharatham.’ It has become a ritual to cathartically cleanse my tear ducts more often than I would like to admit. So when I read ‘Song of the Sun God’, where the character Nala watches the 1964 film ‘Karnan’ seven times in the cinema to vicariously alleviate her emotional pains, I felt exposed from such a specific level of representation I had not experienced in the English language before. It is with this excitement that I approached the interview.

Shankari Chandran

A quote from your book is ‘History is like your shadow, it follows you everywhere.’ How important is it to ‘write what you know’?

One of the wonderful privileges of being a writer is that the universe brings people into your path. People are so generous and brave in their storytelling – they want to have their story told. What people have endured, suffered and survived – and still thrived through – is quite extraordinary. To retell these stories is incredibly courageous and requires resilience. So much of the Tamil story has been silenced – our people have been marginalised and silenced in their own country: their narrative has been manipulated, controlled and, in many places, hidden. One of the metaphors I use in some of my work is the idea of ‘hiding the truth with the bodies,’ burying it deep in the jungle. When you speak to people from Sri Lanka, there is a fear of telling the Tamil story and experience, and exploring justice for Tamil people. And when you speak to people outside the boundaries of Sri Lanka, so much information and disinformation exists. I feel as a lawyer and a storyteller, and most importantly a Tamil person, it is part of my responsibility and duty to explore this – whilst bearing in mind the ethical framework around it. This is ultimately other people’s stories, that they have wanted me and other storytellers to write.

As a child I wrote short stories and read voraciously. I was always imagining and spending time inside my head. I rarely feel lonely or bored because I’m frequently occupied by the stories inside my head. Throughout my twenties, like many people, I thought, “I’m sure there’s a book inside me.” I had a miscarriage with my third [baby]. My husband suggested I do a creative writing course as part of my healing as I had always wanted to write. This creative writing course was instrumental to my formal writing practice: writing is a skill, and the more that you do it, the better you get at it. The process of creating was really emotionally healing for me and gave me a tool to process everything that happens.

What was the initial seed of thought or emotion which triggered the writing process for ‘Song of the Sun God’?

I was very close to my grandparents. My grandmother recently passed away and my grandfather passed away a decade ago. The story seed was this couple based on my grandparents from their youth. As part of a diaspora (in particular, a diaspora that was unable to return to Sri Lanka for thirty years), so much of our understanding of Sri Lanka, Tamil history, politics and culture is through the memories and storytelling of our older generations. If you’re willing to listen, there’s such richness in those moments – and I have been listening my entire life.

When I finished my degree, I went travelling around the world. My mother gave me a list of every family member and told me to call them and they would feed me. I did call them, visit them and they fed me – but they would also tell me stories, and I would journal them in the evenings without realising it. And then in London, I became very close to my extended family who would also tell me my own family history which I also wrote down. Years later, I found those papers and I realised I had unconsciously brought all of that into ‘Song of the Sun God.’

As you mentioned previously, you are also a lawyer, who has worked with First Nations communities, and spearheaded a global pro bono strategy. How does your other career tie into your life as a writer?

For me, ‘Song of the Sun God’, more than any other novel I have written since, is a novel that really interrogates the injustices faced by the Tamil people. I felt so disillusioned (and yet not surprised) by the failures of domestic and international law. My whole legal career has been in the development of systems of justice, so I am accustomed to the failures of the system. The idea that these injustices may never be adjudicated in national or international courts and that in time this would all be forgotten pushed me to use fiction to interrogate them.

Initially I wanted to write a novel about the Tamil experience to the extent of my capacity and skill to do so. I wanted to write it as a love letter to my ancestors to thank them for everything they had given me. I also wanted to write it as a love letter to my four children to say, “This is the world, culture and history that you come from – please take this with you as you go into the world.” But as I got deeper into the novel, I thought I wanted to do more with this piece – I wanted to tell those stories where there is no space to do so in Sri Lanka. But even outside Sri Lanka, these stories have been deprioritised and not been deeply valued.

The history of Sri Lanka was appropriated by the Sinhalese people and the Sri Lankan government to create an identity of what it meant to be Sri Lankan that excluded the Tamil people. I researched the hell out of things, because I’m a lawyer, and I don’t want anyone to ever doubt the veracity of what I have said about the inhumanities that were affected against the Tamil people. If you can challenge the veracity of one part, people would want to dispute what happened to the Tamil people, and then try to challenge the rest of it.

The story of Karnan from the Hindu epic ‘The Mahabharatham’ is a central extended metaphor in the book. It mirrors and plays with the plot points thematically, and is even mentioned in the title. Spirituality is a source of comfort in the text, providing the characters with truths and wisdom. Your latest novel, ‘Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens’ is about sharing tales too. Why do you think storytelling is important?

I have been raised a Hindu from childhood by two people who are deeply spiritual but have two very different approaches to it. My father’s is one of intellectual and academic learning and my mother’s is one of faith and practice. She does not question doctrine, whereas my father actively explores it. Between the two of them, they have created the sense within me that I am much more than what I think, see, feel and do – that I am part of something much larger than myself and what my ego has the capacity to understand. When I am able to set aside my ego and connect with that sense of divinity, I feel like I am my best and true self. My writing brings me very close to that; my writing practice is my spiritual practice – writing is like meditation and prayer. I am terrible at meditation, and generally only pray in times of crisis – I’m a terribly reactive prayer, much to my parents’ dismay. I feel connected to everybody and everything when I write. There are times when I have written and I think the universe has opened a door to me and told its story. That is when I feel like I am connected to something much greater and better than myself.

Hinduism has been such a gift, and I worry that I have failed my own children in not giving them enough of it. Philosophically, Hinduism is such a tremendously progressive way of thinking. I appreciate all the failings of it –  human beings are inherently hampered by our desire for power and to create the institutions and structures for it. But it is still so progressive and inclusive, and well ahead of its time with its willingness to engage in diverse thought. It is so intellectually yearning for challenge – in the time of Adi Shankara, it was a religion and philosophy of debate and discussion. As a cultural practice it is so rich and fun, and so much about community. That’s before we even get to the storytelling of Hinduism.

If you like storytelling and deconstruct it constantly, then you will love the Hindu epics which tell a damn good story and teach an important message at the same time. This is why the story of Karna will make the tenth generation of Chandrans cry, because it holds a universal theme which speaks to the human condition.

Congratulations on the miniseries adaptation of the novel! What is it like to be appointed as a Creative Consultant for the project, and to have Charithra Chandran lead it?

It’s incredibly exciting that Charithra has signed on for the miniseries, and that someone so talented wants to be a part of this project. She sees the value, importance and strength in the story that it tells. I met her a couple of weeks ago, which was so much fun –  partly because it gave me extraordinary street credibility with my teenagers. She was lovely to talk to and clearly very passionate and committed to the project.

What I have learned is that the road to landing on a streaming platform is incredibly difficult. We are now going through that process and I am learning, which I am really enjoying. I am learning from incredibly great writers how you take a novel like ‘Song of the Sun God’ and adapt it into six episodes. As creative consultant of the show, I get to be a part of story rooms in the development of it. The production team that’s involved want to tell the story properly and honestly and maintain its authenticity as well as its credibility. Because they’re driven to create stories in that way, they absolutely want me to be a part of the storytelling.  Over the next couple of months, we will have a better sense of the timeline to execution on it. For now, we’re kicking our heels in disbelief that someone as wonderful as Charithra would like to be a part of it.

What’s next for Shankari Chandran?

I’ve gone on the journey of the career path that was expected of me. Smart Tamil children, which we all are, are very much indoctrinated to follow a career path which was safe and secure, which would be able to support our families. We come from a generation which really exemplified that: my parents and their siblings’ capacity to leave Sri Lanka and to create lives for themselves of safety and security rested on the strength of their education. We are so privileged to have had the benefit of that and so explore other career paths in our lives. That’s the hope of every generation: that your children will be able to do and be more than you were. The question now is: what’s next for me? The ongoing journey of getting better at writing and becoming braver in the stories I’m willing to tell and the issues that I’m able to explore.

[Song of the Sun God], although in some ways was the hardest to tell, was also the story I was the most comfortable telling, because that is the lived experience of our people. My next story (The Barrier) was one I wanted to write in order to recover from the first story: I wanted to jettison myself into pure fiction, because I’d spent so long immersed in the horror of war. And yet, it continued to explore what happens when we don’t listen to the mistakes of the past –  when we fail to learn from history. My third manuscript (as yet unpublished) is set in 2009 and deeply explores the end of the civil war, using the political thriller model. It directly interrogates the role of international government through both their interventions and non-interventions. My third published novel ‘Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens’, which will be available in the UK in bookstores from early next year, is set in a nursing home of elderly Sri Lankan Tamil people. It explores the role of storytelling in keeping our history and culture alive.

As the name of the genre may give away, the family is an essential part of the ‘family saga.’ What did your parents think of the novel?

Both my parents do not read fiction at all. My mother has not read my novels (I hope I don’t shame her if this does get published), but I know she loves me because everything she does says she loves me. Every Tuesday she brings me two big cooler bags of curry because she loves me. The only fiction my dad has read in the last ten years are my novels: he reads them slowly, and he reads them deeply. Afterwards, he comes to me and tells me, “I am so proud of you.” Or, even better, he will say, “I see now that you were listening.”

Five works of art which inspired Shankari: 

1.The Kailash Temple at the Ellora Caves – Must See Before You Die. A temple carved out of a mountain. It demonstrates our

potential for artistry inspired and honed by reverence.

2. Rogue One – the whole saga has been an important part of my life and this was its most perfect offering. I can rewatch it any time.

3. Bhaja Govindam – It makes me cry. I think it reminds me of my grandmother. I feel the composer’s devotion as well as hear it.

4. The Mahabharatham – enough said already.

5. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan – this book taught me how to write war.

Song of the Sun God was released on 3rd November in Australia (for the first time).

Global readers will be able to access the book through:

– book depository for a hard copy

– ebook

Chai Time at Cinammon Gardens is now available at bookstores in the UK.

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