Little dark Nayantara, after conquering the oceans, for once, disobeyed her mystic serpents of the water to land up in the care of the Old One onto the island of spices.

Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘The Mistress of Spices’ published by Anchor Books in 1997, speaks about the everlasting contest of duty versus longing.

Tilo, entrapped in an old arthritic body, lives along with her spices. She knows their nature, their power and their language. The spices, in turn know her heart. For Tilo, with her beloved spices, “each day has a colour, a smell”.

Tilo becomes a kind of a saviour for those who though come to her to buy spices for their kitchen; Tilo seeing through their inner desires, secretly slips in a handful of turmeric with the word of healing whispered into it, into Ahuja’s wife’s grocery sack; or tucks in the hollow dark bone of cinnamon into Jaggi’s green turban, and scatters crushed clove and cardamon later into the night’s winds to open others’ unseeing.

For a moment, seeing the youthful bougainvillea girls, Tilo’s hidden desires leap to one drop of walnut juice in mandrogora with the names whispered over it; but she corrects herself and remembers her commitments to the Old One of being a mistress. She must overcome her lava heart.

Tilo, in her little shop in Oakland stays to care about Geeta’s grandfather who comes to Tilo to lighten his leaden heart for once trying to break and again mend his own family. Tilo never forgets to provide Haroun with his packet of kalo jire to save him from the evil eye of the foreign land.

And only when her knife halves her finger to soak the kalo jire with her blood, does she realize her desires winning over her duties.

Tilo’s very own spices stop talking to her once she gulps down Makaradwaj for her American. The spice’s punishment is like “ash on my tongue”.

When she finally realizes upon the source of true power, Tilo once again steps into Shampati’s fire, holding one single lanka, which starts singing in its voice of hawk.

Each of the chapters has been interestingly named after a spice- starting from Tilo, coming from Til, the spice for nourishment to Ginger, the root of gnarled wisdom. From Peppercorns who has the ability to sweat one’s secret out till Sesame again, and comes a full circle to dissolve the names all over anew.

Experiencing the voyage through the narration of the mistress herself, is all the more enticing.

This tantalising tale of the entire journey of ‘The Mistress of Spices’ seems so mystic and astounding and yet all the more life-like and real when the voice of First Mother says: ” Hope not built on reason brings disappointment only”.


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