Personal Connection to the Novel by Shankari Chandran

Personal Connection to the Novel by Shankari Chandran

My children are the second generation born and raised outside of our ancestral homeland. At times, the words ‘our ancestral homeland’ feel as though they belong to someone else – that I am not entitled to that expression. We have little physical connection to the hard, red earth of the Jaffna peninsula where so much blood was shed. For thirty years we weren’t even able to go there because of the country’s civil war that had precipitated the forced migration of so many family members.


Those were a formative three decades for me. During that time, I watched my parents struggle with rage and grief about the war, and guilt because they had escaped it. I attended protests outside embassies and fell asleep at meetings where aunties and uncles spoke in hushed tones about the most recent atrocities. I learned new words such as pogrom and genocide.


I also spent a childhood patiently spelling my 22-letter name for every substitute teacher in my almost-entirely white school, hiding my seeni sambal sandwiches from friends and begging my Appa to wipe the thirunuru from his forehead before he appeared at parent-teacher interviews with a clipboard. I spent a teen-hood impatiently defending my right to watch Beverly Hills 90210 instead of going to temple, resentfully going to more protest meetings instead of parties, and tearfully begging my Amma to let me wax my moustache that rivalled my brother’s. I spent an early adulthood running away from my parents and a community I found claustrophobic, only to long for them as soon as they were gone.


Aged 23, I boarded a plane at Sydney, bound for Montreal and then London and I didn’t return home for another 12 years. In this final decade, I did a few things. I worked in social justice, I had four children and I watched the news as tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were slaughtered in the final months of the civil war. I planned a book about Sri Lanka I never wrote. I called my Ammamma who lived in Sydney, often. For 12 years, I had a weekly thirty second conversation with Appappa who just wanted reassurance I was still alive overseas; followed by a much longer call with Ammamma, who had many secrets to reveal and many complaints to make.


Somewhere in the middle of that decade, I had a miscarriage on the bathroom floor of a London hospital. This experience is never easy. My husband, fearing for my mental health and obsession with getting pregnant again, suggested that I go to a creative writing class. He thought the creation of words would comfort me until we were able to have the comfort of creating a child again.


So, I went to a writing class across the road from my office. It was the best two hours of my week, every week for the following two years. The teacher asked us to create a character and give that character things to do. I created – or recreated – a person who has always given me great comfort, Ammamma.


I gave her scenes and action and eventually narrative and finally story. From those class notes, I wrote a novel called Song of the Sun God, centring around a young couple based on my grandparents. After Appa finished reading the book, he called me to thank me for remembering everything he’d ever told me about our history, war, culture and community. He expressed surprise (kindly) that I had been listening for the last four decades.


A few years later, after Appappa died, Ammamma moved into a nursing home. This is 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. My children join me on trips to the nursing home to visit her. We don’t often go to temple. We like it, but we don’t seek it out. We haven’t found a natural connection there with community and we haven’t developed a sense of worship there with the deities. But at the nursing home, we have found both.


We go to see Ammamma, but we run into our cousins and friends who are visiting their Ammammas and Appappas. In any one resident’s room, there will be up to four generations of families, talking, laughing, fighting, listening and learning. In Ammamma’s room, she has a small shrine with the deities I remember from my childhood – the Lord Ganesha that belonged to Appappa and the Lord Murugan that belongs to her. There is a photograph of Appappa in the shrine and if the thirunuru on his forehead has rubbed away, I remember to re-apply it.


When we visit Ammamma at the nursing home, we take her for a walk along the corridors and as we pass the rooms of other residents, she will tell us their stories as well as hers. Ammamma is a mesmerising story-teller, and every story about today, always begins with an introduction, a pre-story that starts several decades before today. Her stories often involve more secrets and complaints about her friends in the neighbouring rooms and corridors; and the secrets and complaints always stem from their shared youth. As she ages, her memories of her past, are of course more vivid, and in some ways more real to her than her present-day reality.


This time together, in this nursing home, listening to Ammamma’s stories, running into our cousins and catching up on theirs – build community. These stories connect my children, the fourth but not final generation of Chandrans, to our ancestral homeland. These stories anchor us to our family’s past and our homeland’s history. These stories, in this place, formed the basis of my next novel, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens – my love letter to the communities we build and the stories we tell.