The Mistress of Spices  

by: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Publisher: Doubleday, 1997 , Price: $22.95 , Pages: 352

Reviewed by: Amy Dadichandji Laly, Filmmaker and Writer

I, for one, will never again take my spices for granted, thanks to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's wondrous new novel "The Mistress of Spices." I now know that the dry red chili "was born of Agni, god of Fire to bring taste to this bland world," and "is a cleanser of evil for when there is no other way." I also know that "peppercorn, has the ability to sweat the secrets out of you," and that fenugreek "renders the body sweet again, ready for love."

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning poet and author of the much acclaimed collection of short stories "Arranged Marriage." "The Mistress of Spices" is her first novel which combines her ebullient prose with her gift for poetry. Part Laura Esquivel's magical "Like Water for Chocolate" and part Marion Zimmer Bradley's reimagining of the Arthurian legends "The Mists of Avalon," "The Mistress of Spices" is one immigrant woman's journey from established traditional paradigms of the past to an uncharted future in America. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has crafted a splendid Coming-to-America novel that explores the grim realities of urban decay within a lush framework of magic, pirates, enchanted islands, Indian mythology, and the mystical powers of spices and herbs.

Tilo, short for Tilottama, named "after the sun-burnished sesame seed, spice of nourishment," has had many lives and many names. A precocious and willful girl-child with supernatural powers, she can read the hearts and minds of people, and "change their luck" with the touch of her hand. Her fame spreads far and wide until she is abducted by pillaging pirates. However, the resourceful Tilo overthrows the chief and quickly becomes queen of the buccaneers.

Soon she is bored and sets her sights for more. She wills herself a shipwreck and is saved by snakes who tell her about the enchanted island of spices ruled by the "Old One," also known as "First Mother." She responds to the call of spices and serves as an initiate-sorceress under the tutelage of the "Old One," much like Morgaine, King Arthur's half-sister who learns sorcery and witchcraft from Viviane, priestess of the enchanted land of Avalon and Lady of the Lake.

And while "Mists of Avalon" is a story of profound conflict between Christianity and the old religion of Avalon, the worship of Mother Goddess, "The Mistress of Spices" presents the dilemma of negotiating one's cultural and biological identity with the drama of alienation and self transformation in an adopted homeland, i.e. America.

After undergoing the last rite, a baptism by fire, Tilo is transmigrated into the body of an aging woman who runs an Indian grocery store in Oakland, California. "Wise woman shaman herb-healer, come to make things right" Tilo, is allowed to work her spells and magic only within the confines of her rundown grocery store and only on her Indian immigrant customers. Tilo must remain aloof and refrain from any human touch. "Tilo the architect of immigrant dream. Lifegiver, restorer of health and hope." Here, Divakaruni weaves compelling stories of adversities, defeats and triumphs in the lives of the characters that populate her store and her novel. Some of the stories reflect persistent struggles within the Indian diaspora of North America, like domestic violence, racism, intergenerational discord, and the endless effort to absorb and be absorbed in a new environment.

But Divakaruni's inquiry into transculturalism is at once allusive, subtle and lyrical which cuts through the Indian stereotypes and presents the reader with powerful allegories of transformation and change, for example "Daksha to whom no one listens so she has forgotten how to say," is the workhorse in the family hierarchy of an aging mother-in-law and a husband who will not help around the house. Daksha is a nurse in the AIDS ward. Tilo ministers to Daksha through her spices. "Daksha here is seed of black pepper to be boiled whole and drunk to loosen your throat so you can learn to say No, that word so hard for Indian women. No, and Hear Me Now." Tilo gives Manu, "a senior at Ridgefield High" a "slab of sesame candy made with sweet molasses, gur to slow you down just enough to hear the frightened love in your father's voice losing you to America" when he is not allowed to attend the school prom.

And the story of ten and a half year old Jagjit who is traumatized at school, "Talk English sonofabitch. Speak up nigger wetback asshole," will break your heart. At school he is jeered at and physically harassed for wearing a green turban and at home he is rebuked by an impatient mother who refuses to understand her son's predicament. It is no wonder that in time, the boy will be sucked into the underbelly of street gangs and a false sense of invulnerability. Equally poignant is the story of Mohan who is severely beaten by skinheads while closing his restaurant for the night. Betrayed by American justice when the thugs are acquitted, Mohan smashes everything in sight and returns to India a broken man.

But Tilo's magical prowess begins to crumble when she is drawn to the mysterious Raven, "the lonely American," who walks into her store. Tilo is unable to penetrate his psyche and must break all her vows to taste the forbidden fruit. And while "First Mother" may represent a mythical pull for the security of one's cultural and emotional ties to India, the land of birth, "the lonely American" becomes the call to explore and forge a new identity in America's vast multicultural landscape.

Raven's hatred of his mother begins when he uncovers the dark secret of her ruse to pass as a White American while making every effort to distance herself from her Native American heritage. But it is in this story of Raven, the half Native and half European-American that Divakaruni loses her voice and her poetry. One gets a sense here that Divakaruni may have stepped out of her element.

But no matter. The reader will soon be happily jerked back to the twittering of the "bougainvillea girls." The-shop-till-you-drop daughters of wealth with everything but matter between their ears, are India's answer to the San Fernando "Valley Girls" immortalized by Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon.

Divakaruni is an informed writer. She presents the disruptiveness of change and the power, beauty, strength and validity of redefining one's own individual identity within a broader universal context. Myth comes to life in "The Mistress of Spices" and magic illuminates us all.

And now, I must remember on Sundays, when I "pray to the nine planets for love and luck," to rub in turmeric on "cheek, forehead, chin. It will erase blemishes and wrinkles, suck away age and fat."

(c) Amy Dadichandji Laly
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