Lesley Hewitt

Sri Lanka is a popular tourist destination for Australians, but how many of us know anything about the history of the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil in Sri Lanka?

The 2021 Australian Census found 95,404 Tamils living in Australia of Indian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Many of them are of Sri Lankan origin who sought to come to Australia due to persecution as a result of their links (either real or perceived) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers).

The Tamil Tigers fought and lost in 2009, a 26-year civil war with the Sinhalese majority government. Allegations of genocide followed the end of the war and the post war period has been marked by the on-going persecution of the Tamils.

Two books recently reviewed on Hepburn Community Radio give insight into some of the history and experiences of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Prisoner #1056 is the non-fiction memoir of Roy Ratnavel, a prominent and successful Canadian Tamil. Ratnavel was, at 17, arrested and interned in a prison camp in Sri Lanka where he was tortured for no other reason than he was a Tamil. Upon his release, his father encouraged him to seek refuge in Canada. Ratnavel’s book makes for harrowing reading as it describes his life and experiences in Sri Lanka. His father was shot and killed three days after Ratnavel left Sri Lanka. Ratnavel was determined to honour his father by achieving the future that his father had envisioned. He went to night school, worked several jobs and took the opportunities offered to him by those Canadians who saw his potential supported him as he rose from the mailroom to the executive of Canada’s largest independent investment management company. Whilst the story is about his experience as a Tamil seeking refuge in Canada, the book allows us to reflect on the experiences of others who, in their native country are discriminated against and persecuted for who they are.

Shankari Chandran won the 2023 Miles Franklin Prize for her novel Chai Time at the Cinnamon Gardens, a novel set in Western Sydney that also examines the experience of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Cinnamon Gardens is a family owned and run nursing home that was redeveloped in the 1980s by a Tamil couple, Maya and Zakir after they fled Sri Lanka. Like Ratnavel, they experienced persecution, torture and intimidation that forced them to leave. The novel covers race, trauma, family violence, family relationships and the death of a child, aged care practices and the structural inequity in multicultural Australia. Cinnamon Gardens becomes the site of a culture war after local Councillor Gareth discovers that Maya and Zakhir toppled a statute of Captain Cook in an act of anti-colonial rebellion. Gareth lodges a complaint with the Human Rights Commission and this leads to a nation-wide backlash against immigrant communities that culminates in violence. The book meanders across several timelines and explores many complex and difficult themes. Chandran introduces the complex facts of the Sri Lankan Civil war in a way that is digestible to the reader. The characters are well drawn, nuanced and likeable. Readers may find the novel less harrowing than Ratnavel’s memoir, but both books provide us with an opportunity to grapple with some of the complex issues that face us all in Australia ‘s multicultural society.

Both books are available at the Shire’s libraries. ‘Chai Time at the Cinnamon Gardens’ can be purchased at Paradise Books. Paradise can order in a copy of ‘Prisoner’.

Listen to Lesley’s review of ‘Chai Time’ on Hepburn Community Radio Soundcloud. Her review of ‘Prisoner #1056’ is also on the Soundcloud. There’s more in the podcast!

Related Stories:

Prisoner #1056 – The Second Thursday Book Club Review

Lesley Hewitt is a local resident who has a monthly book review with Max Primer on the second Thursday of every month on Hepburn Community Radio. Lesley is an elected Councillor for Birch Ward and is currently the Deputy Mayor of Hepburn Shire.