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Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni | Book Review

“The Mistress of Spices” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is one more story that belongs to genre portraying the eternal struggle of a human mind to balance between individual desires and common good. It reminds us that magical powers come with regulations as to their usage and the violation of these rules might result into disasters.

Boook : The Mistress Of Spices
Author : Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Publisher : Black Swan (1998), Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (02/1998); and others

Tilo, an elderly Indian lady in appearance, runs a departmental store in San Francisco. It is rumored amongst her customers that she has magical powers and can provide solutions for their problems. The fact is that Tilo’s magic lies in knowledge of spices, in being well-versed with the effect of each of the numerous spices that she houses in her store and her ability to use these spices to do her bidding.

Born as unusual girl in a remote village of a faraway land, she had a knack for finding things that were hidden to the eyes of other humans. The news spread and bandits came to her house, killed her family and kidnapped her to become their “treasure finder”. After a few years, she escaped from their boat and with the help of sea-serpents reached to “The Island”. It was here that she met “The Mother” and started learning from her about the spices and their magic.

But every power has to be paid for and the price for this was to become “The Mistress of Spices”. She was to give up the world and love none other than the spices, never set a foot outside the place where she lived with the spices and never use the spices for her own self. In the final ceremony, when she took these vows, she chose her name as “Tilo”, apparently after the spice ‘sesame’, but secretly, in her heart, she was naming herself after the most beautiful of the heavenly beauties: Tilottama. The mother, who knew the passionate nature of Tilo warned her to be on her guard when she left the island to go and serve the community in San Francisco. Because, the penalty of breaking any of these rules is only one: the mistress has to enter the fire and annihilate herself.

Tilo’s customers include people from all casts and creed, and while helping a teenager boy Jagjit, a taxi driver Haroun, an elderly man worried about his granddaughter Geeta, Tilo slowly gets attached to them and their lives. But above all, a man comes in her life, Doug, an American, who always looks at her as if seeing beyond her old frame and frail body, looking for someone he knows to be inside her but can’t see. And Tilo falls in love with him, against reason and warnings of her mind.

As her feelings for Doug increase and as her detachment for her customers is slowly replaced by her concern for them, her power over the spices starts reducing. Instead of helping the people, spices are now aggravating their problems. And then Tilo learns about Doug’s past, his connection to the natives of America and the magical tradition of his tribe that he could have inherited but lost. He has come to Tilo hoping that she would help him in discovering this lost magic.

Tilo can’t help breaking the rules while trying to help Geeta and Haroun and The Mother comes to warn her that she must return to the island now and take her penalty. Then Tilo breaks the final rule: she uses the spices to become a young and exotically beautiful woman to spend one night with Doug.

What happens next? Did Doug really love her? Will she go to the island and destroy herself in the fire? Will she ever be able to repair the damage that she has caused in the lives of people around her and the city of San Francisco? Will the spices ever forgive her?

This easy-breezy tale of a woman from a world beyond the one that we can see and her journey in our world and our day-today concerns is very well written and delicately woven. As you read on, Tilo’s concern become yours.

Problems of the day-to-day life of her customers are not hi-fi; they are very common. An immigrant from Kashmir in quest of peace and harmony on the new land trying to leave the violence behind him, a boy, outcast at school due to his different appearance and manners, trying to fit-in, a girl born and brought-up as an American struggling to balance between her boyfriend and her suddenly traditional Indian parents, a married woman asking herself how much she could sacrifice on the altar called marriage; we have met all of these someplace or other. But, we see them with Tilo’s eyes and feel for them with Tilo’s heart. We join her in wishing well for them and trying to provide solution of their problems. Despite of her possessing magical powers, she is just as human as any of us, governed by her warm heart rather than her cool mind.

And we cannot condemn her, when driven by the intense emotions of her heart , she is not able to restrain herself within the bounds, so much so, that when she ultimately finds love, she is ready to walk through fire (literally) for it.

A light, entertaining read……………Enjoy

Want to hear from the author herself, about this book? Here is the video you will love to watch.

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