Review: ‘Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens’

‘Trojan horse’ novel tackling colonisation and war wins Miles Franklin Award

by Jason Steger, The Sydney Morning Post, July 25, 2023

Shankari Chandran has pulled a fast one. Her novel Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens has the sort of title and cover that suggest readers are in for a gentle read about the funny old residents of an aged-care home.

But readers are in for a surprise. Chandran’s third novel, which has won this year’s $60,000 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s most significant prize for fiction, addresses racism, the consequences of colonisation, the distortion of history and the traumas of the Sri Lankan civil war head on – all with the help of those funny old residents.

“My publisher, Robert Watkins, says it’s a Trojan Horse, because you think you’re picking up a quirky, cute novel about eccentric characters in a nursing home,” Chandran said. “And then you get to about page 20 and you’re like, holy shit, it’s really not. This is not what I was expecting.”

Miles Franklin-winning author Shankari Chandran says the problem or beauty of writing is that it’s addictive.

Miles Franklin-winning author Shankari Chandran says the problem or beauty of writing is that it’s addictive.CREDIT:JANIE BARRETT

The novel is set in the eponymous Sydney nursing home owned by Maya Ali and run by her daughter Anji. Several of the Tamil residents and employees are still traumatised by their experiences in Sri Lanka, and the home is being targeted by local racists. When one of Anji’s white friends makes a discovery about the home’s early days and takes legal action, it unleashes a torrent of hostility.

Chandran said readers had different reactions depending on their perspectives. Anglo Australians “tell me that they’re glad they continued to read it because it did make them uncomfortable, it was confronting. And at the same time, they wanted to see questions of race, identity and racism articulated in front of them on the page. And they wanted to have the opportunity to reflect on it and to think about their own part in that.

“And people of colour who’ve read it, their reaction is different. They read it and then reach out to me and say that this is everything we’ve ever thought and lived and felt and experienced but have not wanted to say out loud.”

She said those people think they will be characterised as ungrateful migrants who have received refuge in Australia – “a wonderful country” – and are wanting to interrogate those issues of race, identity and racism. She also wanted to explore in Chai Time “why we as a community of intelligent, kind, respectful people find it so hard to have a conversation that is intelligent, kind and respectful about something as important as this”.

 The judges said Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens “reminds us that the personal is often political, and that unaddressed trauma of the past haunts us in the present. It treads carefully on contested historical claims, reminding us that horrors forgotten are horrors bound to be repeated, and that the reclamation and retelling of history cannot be undertaken without listening to the story-tellers amongst us”.

Chandran, whose Tamil parents left Sri Lanka as students, is a lawyer who worked for a decade in London in the social justice field, often with nations being reconstructed after conflict and the disintegration of the rule of law.

In Australia, she said, when she saw a police officer or a soldier, she felt safe. “But when I’m in Sri Lanka and I see a police officer or soldier … my trained and triggered reaction is to move my children behind my body and exit the space as quickly as I can.”

In Australia, we have “been given an opportunity in our ongoing multicultural experiment to create an identity that is not one identity, but many. And to create an identity that is expansive and generous, that is a reflection not just of our best selves, but all of ourselves.”

She has always loved to write: “Putting words on a page makes me ridiculously happy,” she says. But it was only when she and her family returned from Britain that she could pursue it. “And the problem or beauty of writing is it’s addictive. Once you start, and you think you’re just going to write one story or one novel, you cannot stop, or I cannot stop.”

She has a novel due out in April, and is editing a political thriller she wrote seven years ago that will also appear in April as an audiobook and then in print later in the year.

Chandran is often asked whether she is optimistic about Australia’s future.

“Despite everything I’ve seen, despite the savagery and brutality of the human species, I absolutely believe in our power for greatness and for goodness. And so, I’m very optimistic about the future of Australia. I would not have come back here with four children if I didn’t believe that.”

****

by Gaby Meares, Sydney Mechanics School of Arts, no date

‘Opportunity and refuge: the privilege of the migrant Australian. Our lifelong responsibility and debt to be repaid.
Opportunity and refuge: the entitlement of the white Australian. Your lifelong expectation.’

Do not be lulled into thinking this novel is a cosy story about ‘old dears’ in a nursing home. It may be set in a leafy suburb of Sydney, but this book packs an unexpected punch.

The plot ranges over time and place, embracing topics as diverse as colonisation, racism, displacement, war crimes, sexism and consent. There are some deeply disturbing scenes in the book, particularly pertaining to the war in Sri Lanka, and many of the characters are trying to overcome deep trauma.

But although Chandran does not shy away from some awful truths, she tempers them with moments of shared compassion, friendship and a supporting community. I admit that my knowledge of the conflict in Sri Lanka was sketchy, and I now have a better grasp of the complexities of this harrowing war. The author weaves this history into her novel without the reader feeling like it’s a history lesson.

In the Author’s Note, they point out that ‘there are many forms of cultural erasure’ which include, among many other ways, the burning of books and libraries. In 1981, the Jaffna Library was burned by security forces. ‘It contained 97,000 books and historical and cultural records about the Tamil civilisation and its presence in Sri Lanka.’ Many texts were the only copies in existence and have been lost forever. As a book lover and a library lover, I find this action abhorrent and heartbreaking, and I know many other readers will feel the same.

Highly recommended.

REVIEWED BY GABY MEARES
MURDER ON A MONDAY READING GROUP

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