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By Chitra Baneriee Divakaruni
New York: Anchor Books, 1998 ISBN: 0-385-48238-8 338 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2015

Chitra Divakaruni weaves a creative and impossible tale within the tradition of magical realism. If the reader can just accept this fact and let the impossible events just happen and not give their impossibility a notice, then one can be swept up into a fascinating and powerful love story with an informative picture of East Indian culture to boot!

Young Tilo grows up in India in a very poor family, but she has special powers and becomes a healer. These are mystical powers of healing, bringing wealth to her family, but she, herself, is very proud and willful, not behaving as a young Indian woman should.

Eventually she is kidnapped by pirates and becomes their leader. After some years she realizes this is not the life for her, so she leaps off her pirate ship and swims to a near-by island. There she is taken in by a group of women who are led by and governed by The Old One who has extraordinary powers and prepares Tilo to share in them and to prepare herself to be a mistress of spices. After her long training of learning and becoming this new being, the beautiful young Tilo is to pick a place to do her work and to go there to “heal” in many ways.

She chooses Oakland, California in what would seem to be about the present day. Not only is she magically transported to Oakland, but she has become a quite elderly and wizened woman. She doesn’t mind this at all. She runs a fairly large spice shop where, with her near mystical powers, she is able to guide her customers to be healed by bringing them to the proper spices. However, part of who she is does not allow her to get involved in any way with the customers she is helping, but just to guide them via the spices to some healing of their various physical and psychical woes.

Little by little she does come to care for some of the customers as individuals, something that is forbidden to her by her very role and training on the island. She knows she is violating the rules of a mistress of spices and she knows this could lead to trouble, but she seems to have always been in trouble for most of her life because of her strong desires and her willingness to cave into them.

For each person who comes into the shop there is a special spice for that one person. “It is called mahamul, the root spice, and for each person it is different. Mahamul is to enhance fortune, to bring success or joy, to avert ill luck.”

However, her teacher had always feared for her. Tilo has:

“Life-lust, that craving to taste all things, sweet as well as bitter, on your own tongue.”

The strict rule that she and the all other “mistresses” of spices have is to give:

“Equal love to all, particular love to none” “.. and to all whom she has loved as she should not, chaos comes.”

Despite this strict rule to keep herself out of any personal connection to any customer, she simply can’t keep the full distance which the rules of “the mistresses” demand and she gets herself more involved than is allowed with several of her customers, yet she knows the danger of this.

One customer, for example, is a man who is very unhappy because he’s a chauffeur for a crabby woman. Tilo encourages him and secretly aids him to take a new job as a cab driver. He is delighted, however, she senses great danger in his new work, which nearly costs him his life later on.

However, her greatest danger comes from a young America fellow who wandered into her shop and has a strange effect on her, and she slowly comes to not only treat him specially, but to actually fall in love with him despite the fact that she’s a very old woman and he, a quite young man.

She faces serious dangers. The “Old One,” her teacher who had made her into a mistress of spices, had warned:

“One step too close and the cords of light connecting a Mistress to the one she helps can turn to webs, tar and steel, enmeshing, miring, pulling you both to destruction.”

Tilo knows this danger and that she is at the very edges of getting too involved, but she simply cannot say she regrets it or will stop. Finally the Old One herself comes to visit her as a warning. There is no going back. She has to deal with herself. The rules are the rules and if she violates them, she puts herself and others in grave danger.

But the young American just keeps coming back and Tilo seems unable to stop herself as well. She realizes she is actually falling love with him and that it is utterly absurd, but she can’t help herself.

Little by little he tells her of his life and even reveals his name, Raven. She can sense that he is very attracted to her and she knows she is to him. But she hasn’t the courage to slow or stop the relationship.

Finally he confronts her and asks her to be with him, which is strictly forbidden to the rules of the mistresses of spices. She tries to put him off, she tries to develop the courage to break off this developing relationship, but she simply can’t and finally he comes to her and professes his love.

She realizes her life has changed:

“For the first time I admit I am giving myself to love. Not the worship I offered the Old One, not the awe I felt for the spices. But human love, all tangled up, at once giving and demanding and pouting and ardent. It frightens me, the risk of it.”

Eventually she comes up against a great power from the Old One who trained her to be a mistress of spices. Tilo finds alum cube in the shop one morning and she knows its meaning. She has 3 days left, she’s being recalled.

The reader is never told just how this “recall” will happen, but her doom seems inevitable:

“No choice. A recalled Mistress who does not come of her own will is brought back by force. Shampatis’ fire opens its mouth and all around her are devoured by it.”

The man she loves, the young Raven, has told her his whole story and how he simply must have her in his life. It is clear that a crisis moment has come.

The ending is simply crazy! I think the reader never really knows what has happened. Either something totally mystical and unimaginative has happened, or there is an earthquake which behaves in a very strange manner, perhaps caused by The Old One.

As with all work of magical realism, the reader simply must go with the flow of what happens and not be particularly troubled by events that are beyond the normal and possible. That simply goes with the territory of magical realism. However, it really seems to work well in this work and it becomes fairly easy to imagine a particular spice becoming one’s own special healing tool, like a medicine just made for you! I enjoyed that.

While the quote that I end with here below has absolutely nothing to do with my comments on the book, not with the plot and such, I had to include it. Basil is my favorite and most used spice. I grow it in my backyard and have it fresh for at least 6 months of each year, and by then have also used much of it to make a great deal of pesto which I freeze for the rest of the year. Thus when I came across the quote below in the text, I just had a huge smile on my face:

“For all of them (customers) in the evening I burn tulsi, basil which is the plant of humility, curber of ego. The sweet smoke of basil whose taste I know on my own tongue, for many times the Old One has burned it for me too. Basil sacred to Sri Ram, which slakes the craving for power, which turns the thoughts inward, away from worldliness.” ? my own favorite spice.

Bob Corbett


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