The Mistress of Spices

The Mistress of Spices

3.6 17
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Cathleen Toelke
     
 

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Magical, tantalizing, and sensual, The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers.  Once fully initiated in a rite of fire, the now immortal Tilo—in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old

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Overview

Magical, tantalizing, and sensual, The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers.  Once fully initiated in a rite of fire, the now immortal Tilo—in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman—travels through time to Oakland, California, where she opens a shop from which she administers spices as curatives to her customers.  An unexpected romance with a handsome stranger eventually forces her to choose between the supernatural life of an immortal and the vicissitudes of modern life.  Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, born in India, is an award-winning poet who teaches creative writing at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, where she also serves as president of MAITRI, a helpline for South Asian women.  In 1995 her short story collection Arranged Marriage was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.  Her fourth poetry collection, Leaving Yuba City, was published by Anchor in August 1997.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An unusual, clever, and often exquisite first novel...The result is rather as if Isabel Allende met Laura Esquivel."
—Los Angeles Times

"Divakaruni's prose is so pungent that it stains the page, yet beneath the sighs and smells of this brand of magic realism she deftly introduces her true theme: how an ability to accommodate desire enlivens not only the individual heart but a society cornered by change."
—The New Yorker

"The Mistress of Spices is a dazzling tale of misbegotten dreams and desires, hopes and expectations, woven with poetry and storyteller magic."
—Amy Tan

"A splendid novel, beautifully conceived and crafted."
—Pat Conroy

Library Journal
Divakaruni, author of the award-winning short story collection Arranged Marriage (Anchor, 1995), has crafted a fine first novel that makes a smooth transition to the audio format. Tilo, proprietress of the Spice Bazaar in Oakland, California, is not the elderly Indian woman she appears to be. Trained as a mistress of spices, she evokes the magical powers of the spices of her homeland to help her customers. These customers, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants, are struggling to adapt their Old World ideals to the unfamiliar and often unkind New World. Though trapped in an old woman's body and forbidden to leave the store, Tilo is unable to keep the required distance from her patrons' lives. Her yearning to join the world of mortals angers the spices, and Tilo must face the dire consequences of her disobedience. Divakaruni, whose conversational style translates well into audio, blends social commentary and romance into an eloquent novel of the human condition. With superb narration from Sarita Choudhury, this production is highly recommended for all fiction collections.Beth Farrell, Portage Cty. Dist. Lib., Ohio
Kirkus Reviews
The author of the promising story collection Arranged Marriage (1995) employs magical realism to delve back into the lives of Indian immigrants—all of whom, in this case, consult an ancient shamanic spice-vendor in their efforts to improve their lives.

Born ugly and unwanted in a tiny village in India, Nayan Tara ("Flower That Grows by the Dust Road") is virtually discarded by her family for the sin of being a girl. Resentful at being treated so shabbily, young Nayan Tara throws herself on the mercy of the mythical serpents of the oceans, who deliver her to the mystical Island of Spices. There, she is initiated into a priestly sisterhood of Spice Mistresses sent out into the world to help others, offering magic potions of fennel, peppercorn, lotus root, etc. The place where Nayan Tara (now renamed Tilottama, or Tilo) eventually lands happens to be the Spice Bazaar in a rough section of Oakland, California—a tiny, rundown shop from which the now- aged Tilo is forbidden to venture. Here, she devotes herself to improving the lives of the immigrant Indians who come to buy her spices—including an abused wife, a troubled youth, a chauffeur with dreams of American wealth, and a grandfather whose insistence on Old World propriety may have cost him his relationship with a beloved granddaughter. As long as Tilo follows the dictates of her ancient island-bound spice mentor, particularly thinking only of her charges' needs and never of her own, Tilo feels in sync with the spice spirits and with the world at large. Her longing for love tempts her to stray, however, when a mysterious American arrives in her shop.

A sometimes clumsy, intermittently enchanting tale of love and loss in immigrant America. Still, the unique insights into the struggles of Indian-Americans to transcend the gulf between East and West make trudging through some rather plain prose worthwhile.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780385482387
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/28/1998
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
413,287
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt

I am a Mistress of Spices.

I can work the others too.  Mineral, metal, earth and sand and stone.  The gems with their cold clear light.  The liquids that burn their hues into your eyes till you see nothing else.  I learned them all on the island.

But the spices are my love.

I know their origins, and what their colors signify, and their smells.  I can call each by the true-name it was given at the first, when earth split like skin and offered it up to the sky.  Their heat runs in my blood.  From amchur to zafran, they bow to my command.  At a whisper they yield up to me their hidden properties, their magic powers.

Yes, they all hold magic, even the everyday American spices you toss unthinking into your cooking pot.

You doubt?  Ah.  You have forgotten the old secrets your mother's mothers knew.  Here is one of them again: Vanilla beans soaked soft in goat's milk and rubbed on the wristbone can guard against the evil eye.  And here another: A measure of pepper at the foot of the bed, shaped into a crescent, cures you of nightmare.

But the spices of true power are from my birthland, land of ardent poetry, aquamarine feathers.  Sunset skies brilliant as blood.

They are the ones I work with.

If you stand in the center of this room and turn slowly around, you will be looking at every Indian spice that ever was—even the lost ones—gathered here upon the shelves of my store.

I think I do not exaggerate when I say there is no other place in the world quite like this.   The store has been here only for a year.  But already many look at it and think it was always.

I can understand why.  Turn the crooked corner of Esperanza where the Oakland buses hiss to a stop and you'll see it.  Perfect-fitted between the narrow barred door of Rosa's Weekly Hotel, still blackened from a year-ago fire, and Lee Ying's Sewing Machine and Vacuum Cleaner Repair, with the glass cracked between the R and the e.  Grease-smudged window.  Looped letters that say spice bazaar faded into a dried-mud brown.  Inside, walls veined with cobwebs where hang discolored pictures of the gods, their sad shadow eyes.  Metal bins with the shine long gone from them, heaped with atta and Basmati rice and masoor dal.  Row upon row of videomovies, all the way back to the time of black-and-white.  Bolts of fabric dyed in age-old colors, New Year yellow, harvest green, bride's luck red.

And in the corners accumulated among dustballs, exhaled by those who have entered here, the desires.  Of all things in my store, they are the most ancient.  For even here in this new land America, this city which prides itself on being no older than a heartbeat, it is the same things we want, again and again.

I too am a reason why.  I too look like I have been here forever.  This is  what the customers see as they enter, ducking under plastic-green mango leaves strung over the door for luck: a bent woman with skin the color of old sand, behind a glass counter that holds mithai, sweets out of their  childhoods.  Out of their mothers' kitchens.  Emerald-green burfis, rasogollahs white as dawn and, made from lentil flour,  laddus like nuggets of gold.  It seems right that I should have been  here always, that I should understand without words their longing for the ways they chose to leave behind when they chose America.  Their shame for that  longing, like the bitter-slight aftertaste in the mouth when one has chewed amlaki to freshen the breath.

They do not know, of course.  That I am not old, that this seeming-body I took on in Shampati's fire when I vowed to become a Mistress is not mine.  I claim its creases and gnarls no more than water claims the ripples that wrinkle it.  They do not see, under the hooded lids, the eyes which shine for a moment—I need no forbidden mirror (for mirrors are forbidden to Mistresses) to tell me this—like dark fire.  The eyes which alone are my own.

No.  One more thing is mine.  My name which is Tilo, short for Tilottama, for I am named after the sun-burnished sesame seed, spice of nourishment.  They do not know this, my customers, nor that earlier I had other names.

Sometimes it fills me with a heaviness, lake of black ice, when I think that across the entire length of this land not one person knows who I am.

Then I tell myself, No matter.  It is better this way.

"Remember," said the Old One, the First Mother, when she trained us on the island.  "You are not important.  No Mistress is.  What is important is the store.  And the spices."

The store.  Even for those who know nothing of the inner room with its sacred, secret shelves, the store is an excursion into the land of might-have-been.  A self-indulgence dangerous for a brown people who come from elsewhere, to whom real Americans might say Why?

Ah, the pull of that danger.

They love me because they sense I understand this.  They hate me a little for it too.

And then, the questions I ask.  To the plump woman dressed in polyester pants and a Safeway tunic, her hair coiled in a tight bun as she bends over a small hill of green chilies searching earnestly: "Has your husband found another job since the layoff."

To the young woman who hurries in with a baby on her hip to pick up some dhania jeera powder: "The bleeding, is it bad still, do you want something for it."

I can see the electric jolt of it go through each one's body, the same every time.  Almost I would laugh if the pity of it did not tug at me so.  Each face startling up as though I had put my hands on the delicate oval of jaw and cheekbone and turned it toward me.  Though of course I did not.  It is not allowed for Mistresses to touch those who come to us.  To upset the delicate axis of giving and receiving on which our lives are held precarious.

For a moment I hold their glance, and the air around us grows still and heavy.  A few chilies drop to the floor, scattering like hard green rain.  The child twists in her mother's tightened grip, whimpering.

Their glance skittery with fear with wanting.

Witchwoman, say the eyes.  Under their lowered lids they remember the stories whispered around night fires in their home villages.

"That's all for today," one woman tells me, wiping her hands on nubby polyester thighs, sliding a package of chilies at me.

"Shhh baby little rani," croons the other, busies herself with the child's tangled curls until I have rung up her purchases.

They keep their cautious faces turned away as they leave.

But they will come back later.  After darkness.  They will knock on the shut door of the store that smells of their desires and ask.

I will take them into the inner room, the one with no windows, where I keep the purest spices, the ones I gathered on the island for times of special need.  I will light the candle I keep ready and search the soot-streaked dimness for lotus root and powdered methi, paste of fennel and sun-roasted asafetida.  I will chant.  I will administer.  I will pray to remove sadness and suffering as the Old One taught.  I will deliver warning.

This is why I left the island where each day still is melted sugar and cinnamon, and birds with diamond throats sing, and silence when it falls is light as mountain mist.

Left it for this store, where I have brought together everything you need in order to be happy.

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What People are saying about this

Pat Conroy
"A splendid novel. Beautifully conceived and crafted."
Amy Tan
"'Mistress of Spices' is a dazzle tale of mibegotten dreams and desires, hopes and expectations, a mixing of poetry and storytelling magic."

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