A friend commented that the author’s name sounded like a ring tone, probably alluding to the musical sound of the name. Well then, it is only poetic justice that the tale told by the author wafts into your soul like the faintest notes of a soulful melody that is sad and serene at the same time, making you smile, albeit with tears running down your cheeks.
The story starts with the retired Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh returning to the gardens of Yugiri in the Cameron Highlands after thirty four years. It moves back and forth between the present and the past, at times like a sweet gurgling stream, then an angry downpour that threatens to shake and destroy your very roots, again turning into a serene breeze that makes you close your eyes and smell the mountains around you and at other times like a lake that lays placid on the surface, hiding the turmoil of an active volcano underneath.
The only survivor of a Japanese war camp, Yun Ling first comes to Yugiri in search of Aritomo, the Japanese Emperor’s exiled gardener. She wants to build a garden in memory of her sister, an ardent lover of Japanese gardens, whom she lost in the camp. Aritomo refuses , but then later relents agreeing to teach Yun Ling ‘The Art of Setting Stones’ as he calls gardening. Through their evolving relationship we get to know Marcus, the South African who has made his home in a tea estate, his Chinese wife, Emily and nephew Frederik who falls in love with Yun Ling for life, and a host of other characters including her parents.
It is also a story of the sheer meaningless of a war, the helplessness of it is victims and how some of the scars remain for life. Yun Ling’s reluctance to talk about her experiences in the camp leaves you aching for the pain that is so deeply engraved in her soul. The enigmatic Aritomo makes you want to look deep into his soul and drink from it. His serene and calm outer self belies the inner demons that he is trying to slay.
What captivated me was the description of the garden, the amount of thoughts and planning that go into creating a perfect one, all the while knowing that perfection is transient and the garden has to keep changing along with the seasons.
I thought for a second. ‘Obey the request of the stone.’
‘The opening words of the book,’ he said, nodding. ‘This spot where you sit, this is the starting point. This is where the guest views the garden. Everything planted and created in Yugiri has its distance, scale and space calculated in relation to what you see from here. This is the place where the first pebble breaks the surface of the water. Place the first one properly and the others will follow its request. The effect expands through the whole garden. If you follow the stone’s wishes, they will be happy.’
‘You make it sound as though they have souls.’
‘Of course they do,’ he said.
A sense of awe and connection continues throughout the narrative. Everything that we know and go through is somehow related to the people, nature and all else around us. Yun Ling, while hating anything Japanese, feels drawn to Aritomo and his garden who starts to give her a feeling of inner peace and a degree of acceptance to what she went through at the camp. However, the anger that she has purposely suppressed within, refuses get drawn out completely and follows her through her life after Yugiri, as a lawyer and then as a Supreme Court judge. She finally returns to the only place that has given her some sense of peace. Opening the doors to Aritomo’s treasured coveted block prints that she has carefully guarded over almost four decades, she finally comes to term with her inner demons and along with that the secrets that Aritomo took with himself as he disappeared into his beloved forests.
The book also gave me a glimpse of some of the atrocities that were committed during the second world war on the other side of the world.After reading this, I felt Aushwitz has been romanticized to a point that all others pale in comparison. The pain and the terror that Yun Ling , her sister and scores of others went through under the Japanese was no less compared to those in Germany. But, what was surprising to me was how a people who so revered life and nature could even think of instilling such cruelties on their fellow human beings.
Talking about a water wheel in his garden that had inscriptions on the underside of the paddles, Aritomo says,
‘Prayers carved by monks. With every turn of the wheel, the paddles press into the water, imprinting the holy words onto its surface…Just think – once, these prayers were carried from the temple in the mountains all the way to the sea, blessing all those they floated past’
Yet, their descendants are the ones who buried alive those they captured, chopped off bodies piece by piece and committed numerous other heinous acts. Strange are the minds of men and the turns they take.
I specially loved Yun Ling’s thoughts on the water wheel.
‘In my mind I saw the stream winding down these mountains, leaving Yugiri, to be pulled into a river. I saw the prayers steam off the water in the morning sun as the river flowed through the rainforest, past a tiger and a mouse-deer drinking from it, past Malay kampongs and aboriginal longhouses and Chinese squatter settlements. I saw a farmer in his paddy field by the river’s edge uncrook his back and gaze upwards to the sky, feeling a cool breeze on his face and a long moment of unexplained contentment.’
The book is full of imageries like these. You find yourself pausing in between and letting the cool mountain air calm your senses, sometimes you can actually hear the faint rustle of the leaves, shudder at the heavy roll of rain lashing down on the tin roof, and see the graceful heron swooping down into the pond. This is a book that disturbs you and then leaves you with a sense of serenity. And you are left with a longing to stay in the gardens of Yugiri – Evening Mist- for a long time after you have turned the last page.
Verdict : Absolutely loved it, I am a dreamer anyway. Not recommended for those who love action and grand prose. But then, my friend, if you are someone who loves sitting by a stream all by yourself, lost in your dreams with your favorite book close by, if the mere site of a mountain makes you ache for something unknown, if the perfection of a petal brings tears to your eyes…….you will find a treasure in here.