The Cinnamon Gardens Nursing Home sleeps deeply on this summer night. The heat trapped in its brick walls radiates outwards, through the skin of its painted facade.
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is set in an aged care home in Western Sydney. It’s run by a Sri Lankan refugee, Maya and her husband, Zakhir. The present day story line sees Maya now living in one of her own rooms, and the nursing home being run by her daughter, Anji. Chandran uses flashback chapters to fill in the backstory of how they came to be in Sydney, and how they recreated a safe haven for the (mostly) Sri Lankan elderly who have come to live with them.
Cinnamon Gardens was specially designed by Maya to cater for the needs of all its residents. Sri Lankan food is on the menu every day (as well as other culturally appropriate meals for the nationalities of the other residents and staff). Activites and religious services also reflect the cultural diversity of the residents. The decor, plantings and staff are all carefully curated to help the residents feel at home and comfortable, surrounded by familiar sights, aromas and sounds. It sounds wonderful. A caring, thoughtful haven for those in their twilight years. A place where their stories are listened to and respected. A place where their life stories matter.
But of course, it’s not all roses and Arabian jasmine.
Many of the residents are traumatised by their earlier experiences that caused them to leave their home countries, and many of the staff suffer at the hands of local gangs not happy with the growing racial diversity in their neighbourhood. Throughout the story, we are also aware that something awful has happened to Zakhir.
A lot of stories are interwoven into Chandran’s heartwarming, honest, and sometimes disturbing story. Anji and her husband, Nathan, their friends, Nikki and Gareth (who have their own personal tragedy to deal with), Ruben, one of the assistants and various residents all get some time to tell their stories.
At the halfway point, though, the story takes a big turn. Not necessarily a surprising turn, but a confronting one. By giving us the first half of the book to get to know all the charcters and their back stories, Chandran allows us to be sympathetic or at least empathetic, when things start to go bad. Very bad.
I did at times, have trouble keeping track of the various strands of the story, and some of the back stories could have been delivered more simply by two of the characters having a conversation, but for me, this was a minor flaw in an otherwise engaging, enriching story. Chandran addresses what it means to grow up and live in an Australia where casual, and not so casual, racism exists, at all levels of our society.
Her solution is to tell stories.
Like Maya, she believes that stories have the power to reveal and to hide, to offer forgiveness, compassion and connection. Diverse stories matter and deserve to be told. Maya’s guiding principle is that we all deserve to be loved just as much at the end of our lives as we were at the beginning. Part of that involves having a safe haven in which to live out our lives as well as someone to listen to our stories.
Chandran grew up in Canberra, worked in London for a decade as a social justice lawyer, before returning home to Australia with her family.
On her website, Chandran wrote,
I wrote Chai Time because I wanted to explore home, without apology and without deference to the silencing gratitude that was expected of me as the child of brown migrant Australians. We are supposed to be a successful multicultural experiment. But there’s a very strong narrative in the public space about what it means to be Australian and what it means to be unAustralian. Diversity is defined with reference to a white Australian norm and it’s only allowed to exist if it doesn’t threaten or offend white Australia. I wanted to write about the Australia that I experience, love and sometimes fear – a place of refuge for my family but also a place of many contradictions.
- Published by Ultimo Press a new, independent publisher based in the Sydney suburb of Ultimo for #ReadIndies2022
Title: Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens Author: Shankari Chandran Cover Design: Jessica Cruickshank ISBN: 9781761150319 I,mprint: Ultimo Press Published: 5th January 2022 Format: Paperback Pages: 384
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.