Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran
‘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.