How Do the Spices Become a Character in the Novel?

Spices accompany people all their lives long, even if they do not notice and automatically add salt, paper and whatever there is in the kitchen to their daily meals. However, considering them carefully, one may discover a whole world that needs a lifetime to study, understand, and feel.                                                                      

There exist a number of books which describe flavors and cooking peculiarities of the spices. Nevertheless, there is one special book that tries to open their nature and soul, which is Mistress of Spices written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The author was born in India, and in all her works she shows love and respect to her country, traditions and people. Divakaruni is not only a writer who describes difficulties of emigrants; she takes an active participation in their destiny and is the president of MAITRI – hotline for South Asian women.           

Sometimes fantasy takes people’s minds very far, in the places where any human has never been before; somewhere beyond their comprehension, experience, and knowledge. This method is typical for modern Indian writers who mix religion, rites, cults, and national traditions, and show their implementation in the modern world. The Mistress of Spices is written in the spirit of magical realism, where the author mixed fantasy, realism, and Indian myths. All daily situations, circumstances, and characters are imbued with the fragrant magic. There is magic of the spices, which is owned by the main character of the book – Tilottama (Tilo), a woman who was trained in the art of ruling them. The First Mother has accepted and taught Tilo, simply because she was “the only one in whose hands the spices sang back” (36).    

Before leaving the First Mother’s island, Tilo vowed to abstinence from human desires, and dedicate her life only to the spices. The given knowledge had its own price. In order to serve the spices, Tilo had to leave her own body and take a shape of an old woman, who cured bodies and healed hearts of the visitors in a tiny Indian store in Oakland. She dedicated her life to serving the compatriots living in America.                                                         

While reading the book, it is obvious that there is not one, but two main characters. The spices rule, and Tilo can only sing and pray to her masters to release magical powers that are hidden in them: to heal, give hope, show the right way, restore happiness and well-being. The spices talk to their Mistress, “When I hold it in my hands the spice speaks to me. Its voice is like evening, like the beginning of the world” (13). They speak to themselves and open to Tilo their nature, “I am turmeric who rose out of the ocean of milk when the devas and asuras churned for the treasures of the universe. I am turmeric who came after the nectar and before the poison and thus lies in between” (14).                                        

Each chapter of the book opens the story and sacral nature of a certain spice, such as cinnamon, turmeric, fennel, chili, peppercorn, etc. They all have different functions. One helps to release sadness and uncertainty, another one encourages coping with the disease, and the third one brings peace to the family and, at the same time, softens their hearts.                

Not humans, but the spices became the real characters of each chapter. They help to a taxi driver Haroun, Lalita, Ahuja's wife, and little boy Jagjit. The spices behave as alive creatures that possess their own opinion, spirit, and will. As the story progresses, the description of the human characters gets weaker and even sketchy, while the character of the spices is stronger. In each chapter, their behavior becomes more “human”. Finally, the spices completely own their Mistress. She loves them so much, that her entire life focuses only on the beloved spices. Tilo gives them absolute love, but the spices are very demanding, strict, selfish, and jealous lovers. Here one can observe the greatest irony which is powerful and helpful to other people in finding love and peace. The spices restrain their Mistress from finding her own happiness. They tempt Tilo’s will, “Then sudden as lightning I see it, how they are luring me. To break the most sacred promise, to do myself beyond recall. O spices who have these many years been my one reason to live, do not punish me with temptation” (202).                                  

To make the spices answer and give their magical healing power, the Mistress has to be faithful only to them. She cannot love anyone, even herself, because there should be only one love in her heart devoted to the spices. Tilo does not obey them and falls in love. She takes offense of her magical masters in return, since the spices refuse to give their power and answer her prays:

I Tilo who still hold you high in my heart. Do not battle me; push me down where later I will hate us both. Silence. Then: so be it for now. We are patient. We know you will come to us soon. Once you have heard our song, have paced the rhythms of desire whose seat is deep in the body’s core, you cannot resist. O spices, I say as I lower my stiff body onto the hard floor where I will toss unsleeping all this night. My voice is tired with persuading, tinged with doubt. Can I not love you and him both. Why must I choose. The spices do not answer. (Divakaruni 202)

The story of Mistress and her spices is not a about the struggle between good and evil. It depicts the inner search of happiness and the right place in life.                    

Description of the spices is written in a very intriguing way. The unique feature of this writing is that inanimate spices are over “flesh and blood” creatures. In their respective characters, spices are international and global; they are accepted by everybody, irrespective of religion, country, and sex.                                  

Finally, Mother did not define that the spices belonged to any certain country or faith. She believed they were omnipresent and universal. While reading the text, it seems that one can feel their smell and taste. Probably now, using turmeric or ginger, I will always feel their depth and power. Moreover, I will remember to be attentive to them, as it was said in the epigraph of the book, "spices, described in the book should be used only under the direction of a real princess."

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