Yaamam- The Fragrance of The Night

“Time heals everything”, say the wise. Does it? Well, I know not for sure. But what I do know is that there are a few others apart from time that can heal at least something if not everything. For instance, a long walk in the rain, a soulful conversation with a complete stranger, a journey to nowhere and finally my all-time favorite, the night in all its glory. Night, like death is an equivalent to the universal truth, because darkness brings out the true colors of everyone. The world wears a pretense through the day, waits for the sun go down and the lights to go on for that is when the real spectacle begins. It is in the silence of the night that most of us find the strength to take off our masks, listen to our own voice and see who we really are. Ironically speaking, it is amidst the stillness of the night that life actually happens. For someone who is so much in love with the night, to be gifted the book “Yaamam” is as delightful as getting to have a soulful conversation with a complete stranger while walking alone in the rain to nowhere-land on a summer night.

S. Ramakrishnan or S. Ra (read as Essra) as he is fondly known among his readers needs no introduction in the world of Tamil readers and Yaamam is his novel that won him the prestigious Tagore Literature Award from the Sahitya Akademi. “Yaamam” in Tamil means Night and the author narrates almost the entire story with the night as its backdrop. In the book, he gives the name Yaamam to a very special ‘attar’ (means perfume), the fragrance of which flows all through the book connecting its characters. However, his reference to this magnificent attar only sounds like a metaphor to me and the real fragrance that he is speaking of is probably the fragrance of the night that perfumes life.

The story begins with the advent of East India Company in India and walks you through a time period when the lives in the East and in the West were beginning to blend. I was starting to believe that the book is going to be a historical fiction when I was taken to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s palace, then told of the arrival of the British and finally the story of the birth of the place called Madrasapattinam (now known as Chennai). However few chapters later I was wondering if it’s a fantasy novel, for it speaks of genie that guides, of fish that laughs, of ocean that talks and a lot more. One moment we follow the life of a wandering beggar who follows a dog, the next moment we walk through the streets of the Madrasapattinam peeping into the secrets of several lives, a moment later we are in a ship on the ocean learning philosophy, then in a rose garden extracting the scents out a thousand flowers, later in the snow covered lanes of London and once again we are back with the beggar and his dog.

The book is enriched with historical information, although I wouldn’t classify it as a historical fiction. I am amazed how these information, like the Survey of India, the beginning of tea cultivation, the labour movement in the United Kingdom etc are carefully knit together in the making of the story. You get to study the complications of human minds, their desires and deliberations and watch from near each one’s fall and rise. If I must sum up my experience of Yaamam, I must borrow words from Longfellow’s Hymn to the Night

I heard the sounds of sorrow and delight,
The manifold, soft chimes,
That fill the haunted chambers of the Night,
Like some old poet’s rhymes

We have always been asked not to judge a book by its cover but the cover of this book deserves a mention. The cover was intriguing enough to make me pick the book from the pile of books waiting beside my bedside to be read. And the cover makes more sense once the book is done.

I loved the narration thoroughly and there are parts where it sounded like a wonderful poetry recital. But this can be troublesome if you do not have the patience to finish a page long depiction of the beauty of the ocean or the hills or the night, before S.Ra tells you what actually happens there. Of course, you can skip those pages, but then you will be missing some of those amazing treasure of thoughts spilled all over these extensive elaborations. I suggest, keep patience. An almost realistic ending to a seemingly fictitious story might disappoint readers who love happy endings, but let me tell you it is indeed a happy ending and I hope you see it.

As for others who like me would love to lie awake all night listening to its anthem, wait until its dawn and watch the morning sun light up the eastern sky and then fervently wish for someone to switch off the Sun, this is a must read for you.

(P.S. I am not entirely at ease with the idea of a reviewing an amazing Tamil work in English. But I might find my peace if this can inspire at least one of those readers who can read Tamil, yet never reads Tamil to pick this book in the future.)