The difficult relationship between power, responsibility, and humility is on full display in The Mistress of Spices, where Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s empathetic and passionate writing merges with magical realism. I loved a lot of the ideas in this book, and the meditative way in which CBD punctuates the narrative with beats on each spice. Yet the execution of the story itself, and the characters, left much to be desired.
Tilo is a young woman with an old woman’s body. Born in India, unusual from the start, she eventually finds herself on an island where the Old One teaches her the mysteries of spices. Along with a handful of other girls, Tilo undertakes a transformative journey that places her in present-day San Francisco, where she is the eponymous Mistress of a spice shop primarily serving Indian immigrants and their descendants. Tilo’s training allows her to pick out the right spices for different people’s situations. However, this power comes with a price (it always does). In addition to inhabiting an elderly body and being forbidden to look upon her own reflection, Tilo is prohibited from ever using the spices for her own ends, either to benefit herself or others; she must only work the spices’ will. Moreover, she must never leave her shop, but rather stay within it, rooted in place, a conduit for the spices to distribute themselves to anyone and everyone who might need their intercession. When a mysterious American visits Tilo’s shop and catches her attention, her life as Mistress soon starts unravelling.
The most obvious theme here is one of hubris, the idea that personal flaws can undermine anyone with great power, no matter how carefully they train or study. I greatly respect CBD’s portrayal of a flawed, occasionally unlikeable protagonist. In Tilo we see someone who, from the start, admits to being selfish, admits to being headstrong—but she doesn’t learn. This is why I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped: I don’t mind flawed or even unlikeable protagonists, but I want to see some change. I want to see some remorse. With Tilo, all we really get is, “Oh well, I fucked up, I guess I’ll take the consequences, unless the universe maybe decides to let me off the hook? Just this once?”
Fortunately, there’s room enough to revel still in CBD’s writing. Her prose is every bit as flavourful as the spices she describes. Not going to pretend to have any understanding, however superficial, of Indian cuisine and the nature of these spices or their flavours. This is not a cookbook. It’s a love letter to an important part of culture, to the way food can have a significant impact on the lives of those we love. Spices have long been recognized as these transformative agents. So it makes total sense for there to be this entire book about mediating relationships through spices.
I also like the reflections Tilo provides on the different ways in which Indians have adapted to life in the United States. There are the traditionalists, those who came over from India and have tried to maintain as much of their culture as possible. There are the first- and second-generation children, who feel varying degrees of connection to their culture but also embrace many American ideas. There are the “bougainvillea girls”, the affluent women of Indian descent who have the looks and sometimes, as a result, are treated in certain ways, but for whom their cultural connection is tenuous at best.
Deep down inside, then, something lurks within The Mistress of Spices, a meditation on what it means to be “Indian enough” in a country that is not India. CBD never fully examines this here—then again, I’m not sure that’s the primary focus of this novel. Still, I like how she acknowledges the dazzling diversity of ways in which people learn about and interact with their heritage. Tilo might occasionally be bemused by the bougainvillea girls, but she acknowledges that they are every bit her people and every bit as deserving of her help as the staunch, more traditional patrons who know the right terms and phrases.
At its core, though, this novel is a love story. I didn’t enjoy this aspect of it. To be honest, I literally skimmed all of Raven’s story. He bored me. His pursuit of Tilo, and the schoolgirlish way she allowed herself to succumb to his charms, bored me. It’s not bad—but I just didn’t feel like letting myself succumb to this plot’s charms, if you know what I mean.
I enjoyed dipping my toes into CBD’s writing again. I always love the way she creates interesting situations for her characters, and how she never shies away from the more difficult aspects of reconciling culture and country. However, The Mistress of Spices is not my favourite example of her work.