Marie-Claire Colyer reviews Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

by Shankari Chandran

ISBN 9781761151408

Ultimo Press

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, Shankari Chandran’s third published novel, is a narrative of substance. You could be excused for expecting a light-hearted romp through an old people’s home, if you judged this book by the cover and title alone. Indeed, there are light-hearted moments. But this is so much more. Beyond its cover illustration lies a powerful and interlaced tale.

Encompassing years of the Sri Lankan civil war, dispossession and migration, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens presents the hurdles many migrants to new lands face in merging with the accepted norm. The characters have powerful narratives to tell. Secrets that they hold close and divulge only in cathartic moments of revelation. A layering of two timelines, past and present, this is a novel about people and their stories, set against a backdrop of personal and national histories. Stories of resilience, sorrow and depth told with warmth and gentle humour. Darker moments are offset by the diverting interactions of the colourful residents of a nursing home in Western Sydney. The characters weave their lives into a rich tapestry offering insight into the dynamics of family and friendship, racism and identity.

Maya and her husband Zakhir are Tamil refugees, forced to flee the Sri Lankan civil war and settle in Australia. There they resurrect a neglected nursing home, providing a place of peace and inclusion for many senior residents, including other Tamils. We learn that Maya, matriarch, and owner of the nursing home, grieves for the loss of her husband scarred by his past. Their pasts unite and yet in many ways isolate the residents, haunting many of the characters, underpinning daily life. What is unresolved, what needs rectifying drives Maya’s husband Zakhir to return to a homeland where he is considered a traitor. And it is the interweaving history of Zakhir and another central character, Ruben that simmers until boiling point.

A Tamil refugee, Ruben is one of the many who fled under duress from a country divided. Chandran keeps us waiting to discover how Ruben is connected to Zakhir. Unravelling these interlocking experiences over the length of the novel, she provides flashes of the trauma so many Tamils endured. A trauma that few privileged within Australia know intimately.

Maya is a strong woman, with an empathy for history; both of country and of individuals. She unearths personal pasts, using these observations in the creation of a nursing home that best embraces each of the inhabitants’ needs. Facing inequality as an ethnic author, alongside her focus on the nursing home, Maya comes to write successfully under the pseudonym of a white Australian. A name that gives her national standing and influence when later confrontation erupts. As such she is a projection of writers of ethnic background straining to find a foothold in western literature.

A subplot is revealed through the course of the novel. Maya’s daughter Anjali and her husband Nathan are buttresses for their friend Nikki navigating her own loss. The devastation of parents whose estrangement becomes pronounced in suffering the death of a young child. Recriminations and blame eventuate, locked behind the cold demeanor of unburdened grief. Nikki acknowledges the distance between her and her husband Gareth, as she turns to the comfort of Ruben. Gareth lashes out at Ruben in his own struggle to cope with the loss of his daughter. The gulf between Gareth and his wife, Nikki propels the novel into an exposé on tolerance.

In the novel, Gareth is the antagonist. He counts Maya’s family as friends, offering the outward appearance of inclusivity. But by the close of the novel his reticence is unveiled, shouting through the cracks in his façade. Fuelling his indignation is the discovery of Maya and Zakhir’s toppling of a statue of Captain Cook. When he brings an accusation of anti-colonialism before The Human Rights Commission the national backlash is immediate. These incidents are sparks that set aflame smouldering racism in a community that now feels justified to revile immigrants. It is an excuse for open expressions of hatred, leading to the response of those taking a stand for minority groups.

In Gareth and the xenophobic we see the ugliness of fear. A mistrust of those that are unlike us. Just as we can in the flashbacks to scenes in war, recognise a universal fear. The apprehension of not being accepted, the trepidation of loss. We glimpse a part of ourselves. An embodiment of humanity at its worst. And a wish to do better. This vulnerability makes Gareth human. His clinging to the world as he knows and wants it to be.

Tensions are visible threads that emerge as a wider description of Australia as a whole, exposing an often-shunned view of ourselves. The ways in which the diaspora is integrated into the fabric of society; the way they can be stymied by our reluctance or resistance in accepting those with differing backgrounds. Perhaps more so because of physical dissimilarities than culture.

Chandran’s willingness to bring these incidents to light, is commendable. Events and prejudices are revealed from the perspective of the Tamil people of her ancestral home. Though not always the case, Chandran here presents intolerance towards migrants entering a culturally different established group. She explores how through familiarity and routine people tend to hold to what they have been informed is their birthright. Whatever that upbringing may be, whether born into this society or assimilated into it. It is this turning over of the histories we have been aligned with, those indoctrinated through our education and the nation’s psyche where the book finally comes to rest.

Shankari Chandran paints a picture of Australian society that bares the fissures and flaws, the divisions that we tend to gloss over and hide. She states her position with a willingness to see beyond embedded opinions to the more subtle layering of what drives behaviour. And as such, her work is an exploration of human nature.

Chandran’s work addresses nationality, that of the Australian and Sri Lankan people. It offers glimpses of history; the histories we’ve been taught and those that have been rewritten or suppressed. It shows alternate notions of what we have taken for granted. And through the eyes of its characters allows us to experience cultures and antipathy many have never been exposed to.

The only comment that I would give is that I would have liked the inclusion of an intolerant, less obliging character of ethnic origin to offset the real bigotry in a segment of white society. But that perhaps is the mirror to discomfort in my own evaluation of the divisions inherent in the society I live in and my placement within it. There is in Chandran’s story, a wide margin in likeability between the main characters of different cultures, with Nikki being the chief favourable representation of white Australians. That is not to say that Chandran’s depiction of immigrants is homogenous. There are minor characters with personalities that I would find testing. But there is a tendency, which aligns with her message, to portray more racial acceptance or at least amiability from ethnic people and more intolerance from white. This though also relates to the pressure placed upon her characters to prove themselves as Australians grateful to be given sanctuary. Something that white Australians are not obliged to do.

It is refreshing to read a novel that calls us out on ingrained prejudice or habitual ways of thinking and regarding the world. Like in all Chandran’s work, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens turns a spotlight on the judgement, rejection and antagonism towards a minority ethnicity wanting only to live a peaceful life. It poses questions we as Australians and indeed those of other nations should contemplate. History is written by the victorious. This book asks us to contemplate parallels between the suppression and alteration of histories and identity of both Tamil and First Nations people. Ultimately, the question of who we are. To quote the novel in Maya’s words, ‘…we are all immigrants on stolen land.’ (p310). Further, a quote by Maya’s father, ‘…possession of land is nine-tenths of the law; possession of history is nine-tenths of the future.’ (p 233).


Disclosure: The writer knows the author personally, however the opinions expressed are her own.
MARIE-CLAIRE COLYER is an award-winning Australian wildlife artist and writer. Her work covers personal essay, memoir, poetry, mainstream and literary fiction. Her writing and art have been published in magazines, journals and newspapers both in print internationally and online.