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. My children and I have little physical connection to the hard, red earth of the Jaffna peninsula where so much blood was shed. We have very few memories of this place.
For thirty years my family wasn’t even able to go there because of the country’s civil war that precipitated the forced migration of so many Tamil people. 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.
In 1997, aged 23, I boarded a plane at Sydney, bound for Montreal and then London and I didn’t return home for another 12 years. This was also the final decade of the ongoing civil war, a time when I worked in social justice, had four children and then watched the news as tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were slaughtered at the end of the conflict in May 2009. My parents’ and grandparents’ memories that we had learned through their stories, now sat alongside BBC images of maimed children, burning villages and piles of corpses.
During this time, I planned a book about Sri Lanka I never wrote. I often called my Ammamma who lived in Sydney. 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.
As the conflict came to an end, 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.
In 2013, a few years after our return to Australia, my Appappa died, and Ammamma finally moved into a nursing home in 2017. 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 love to join me on trips to the nursing home to visit her. We go to see Ammamma, but we run into our cousins and friends who are also 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.
The children and I 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. In Ammamma’s room, she has a small shrine with the statues I remember from my childhood – the Lord Ganesha that belonged to Appappa and the Lord Murugan that belongs to her. My children play with the deities, and they help her clean and arrange her shrine, just the way she likes it. There is a photograph of Appappa there too, and if the thirunuru on his forehead has rubbed away, I remember to re-apply it. We find worship, not in prayer or ritual, but in connection with this person we all came from.
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. Every story about today always begins with an introduction, a pre-story that Ammamma starts several decades before today. The nursing home rooms are populated with elderly women, who thought they made a better eggplant curry than her, but were woefully mistaken. Apparently, they coveted her fair complexion and her handsome doctor husband. They played three-nought-four together, they watched the British leave Sri Lanka together and they worried about their children’s marriages together. Ammamma’s stories often involve more secrets and complaints about her friends in the neighbouring rooms; 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. My children delight in this time together; they look forward to it, they ask probing questions with the privileged candour of great-grandchildren and long afterwards, they will begin a sentence with “Remember what Pooti said…”.
These stories - remembered and loved - anchor us to our family’s past and our homeland’s history. These stories are the memories of our ancestors, told to my children who through them, build their own memories and their own stories. 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.
Chosen charities by the author
Support Tamil Sri Lankan refugees Priya and Nades Murugappan and their two young girls to return home to Biloela, Queensland after more than 340 day in immigration detention.
Sri-Lankan based Vanni Hope is a charity focused on empowering disadvantaged women, disabled children, disadvantaged students, providing clearn water and sanitation to needy families and proving sporting and cultural facilities to underpriviledged communities.
Based in Australia, Palmera uses the symbol of the ubitquitous palm tree as a rallying image to help ensure the poor have a living income in Sri Lankan communities. Founded after the Boxing Day Tsunami, Palmera has reached hundred of thousands through their village2market, livelihood and vulnerability programs, and it maintains the highest level of acceditation, with 90 percent of funds going to the field.
Shankari Chandran is a Tamil Australian lawyer who has worked in the social justice sector for nearly two decades. She is the author of three books: Song of the Sun God (Perera-Hussein Publishing, 2017), The Barrier (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2017) and Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens (Ultimo Press, 2022, buy it here). You can read more about her work at her website, or follow her on Insta or LinkedIn.