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The Mistress of Spices
Cover of The Mistress of Spices
The Mistress of Spices
A Novel
A classic work of magical realism, this bestselling novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tells the story of Tilo, a young woman from another time who has a gift for the mystical art of spices.
Now immortal, and living in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman, Tilo has set up shop in Oakland, California, where she administers curatives to her customers. But when she's surprised by an unexpected romance with a handsome stranger, she must choose between everlasting life and the vicissitudes of modern society. Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy, sorrow, and one special woman's magical powers.
A classic work of magical realism, this bestselling novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni tells the story of Tilo, a young woman from another time who has a gift for the mystical art of spices.
Now immortal, and living in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman, Tilo has set up shop in Oakland, California, where she administers curatives to her customers. But when she's surprised by an unexpected romance with a handsome stranger, she must choose between everlasting life and the vicissitudes of modern society. Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy, sorrow, and one special woman's magical powers.
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    I am a Mistress of Spices.I can work the others too. Mineral, metal, earth and sand and stone. The gems with their cold clear light. The liquids that burn their hues into your eyes till you see nothing else. I learned them all on the island.

    But the spices are my love.

    I know their origins, and what their colors signify, and their smells. I can call each by the true-name it was given at the first, when earth split like skin and offered it up to the sky. Their heat runs in my blood. From amchur to zafran, they bow to my command. At a whisper they yield up to me their hidden properties, their magic powers.

    Yes, they all hold magic, even the everyday American spices you toss unthinking into your cooking pot.

    You doubt? Ah. You have forgotten the old secrets your mother's mothers knew. Here is one of them again: Vanilla beans soaked soft in goat's milk and rubbed on the wristbone can guard against the evil eye. And here another: A measure of pepper at the foot of the bed, shaped into a crescent, cures you of nightmare.

    But the spices of true power are from my birthland, land of ardent poetry, aquamarine feathers. Sunset skies brilliant as blood.

    They are the ones I work with.

    If you stand in the center of this room and turn slowly around, you will be looking at every Indian spice that ever was--even the lost ones--gathered here upon the shelves of my store.

    I think I do not exaggerate when I say there is no other place in the world quite like this. The store has been here only for a year. But already many look at it and think it was always.

    I can understand why. Turn the crooked corner of Esperanza where the Oakland buses hiss to a stop and you'll see it. Perfect-fitted between the narrow barred door of Rosa's Weekly Hotel, still blackened from a year-ago fire, and Lee Ying's Sewing Machine and Vacuum Cleaner Repair, with the glass cracked between the R and the e. Grease-smudged window. Looped letters that say spice bazaar faded into a dried-mud brown. Inside, walls veined with cobwebs where hang discolored pictures of the gods, their sad shadow eyes. Metal bins with the shine long gone from them, heaped with atta and Basmati rice and masoor dal. Row upon row of videomovies, all the way back to the time of black-and-white. Bolts of fabric dyed in age-old colors, New Year yellow, harvest green, bride's luck red.

    And in the corners accumulated among dustballs, exhaled by those who have entered here, the desires. Of all things in my store, they are the most ancient. For even here in this new land America, this city which prides itself on being no older than a heartbeat, it is the same things we want, again and again.

    I too am a reason why. I too look like I have been here forever. This is what the customers see as they enter, ducking under plastic-green mango leaves strung over the door for luck: a bent woman with skin the color of old sand, behind a glass counter that holds mithai, sweets out of their childhoods. Out of their mothers' kitchens. Emerald-green burfis, rasogollahs white as dawn and, made from lentil flour, laddus like nuggets of gold. It seems right that I should have been here always, that I should understand without words their longing for the ways they chose to leave behind when they chose America. Their shame for that longing, like the bitter-slight aftertaste in the mouth when one has chewed amlaki to freshen the breath.

    They do not know, of course. That I am not old, that this seeming-body I took on in Shampati's fire when I vowed to become a Mistress...

About the Author-
  • Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the author of the novels Queen of Dreams, The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, Before We Visit the Goddess, One Amazing Thing, Oleander Girl, and The Vine of Desire, and of the prizewinning story collections Arranged Marriage and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. She lives in Houston, Texas, and teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.


Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 2, 1997
    Carving a fresh niche in the genre of literary romance, Divakaruni, author of the praised short-story collection Arranged Marriage (1995), has written an ambitious first novel that injects magic and mysticism into a contemporary urban setting. The narrator, born in India with supernatural gifts, has learned the secret powers of spices. Upon taking her vows as a Mistress of Spices, Tilo is granted immortality on several conditions, one being that she must never succumb to carnal desires. Emerging from a ritual fire, Tilo is transformed into an old, ugly woman, the proprietor of a spice store in a seedy area of Oakland, Calif. Because she can see into the minds and hearts of her customers, Tilo is able to recommended spices that can help them surmount their sorrows and fulfill their hopes. (Divakaruni's poetic descriptions of a myriad array of spices are a fascinating mixture of superstition and homeopathic medicine.) But when handsome Raven walks into her store, Tilo immediately falls in love with him. Suddenly vulnerable, she decides to transform herself into a young woman in order to enjoy a night of love with Raven. Divakaruni writes lush prose with which she infuses the mundane with magic. Like Bharati Mukherjee, she perceptively depicts a cross-section of the Indian immigrant community trapped between traditional values and the American dream. Unfortunately, the love story a variant of the frog prince myth in which the frog is TiloDis fatally undermined by the character of Raven, who is a stick figure constructed around a plot device. His immediate attraction to the elderly Tilo is never credible, and the dialogue he speaks is so artificial it can make one cringe. Major ad/promo; excerpt in D magazine; author tour.

  • Los Angeles Times

    "An unusual, clever, and often exquisite first novel...The result is rather as if Isabel Allende met Laura Esquivel."

  • The New Yorker "Divakaruni's prose is so pungent that it stains the page, yet beneath the sighs and smells of this brand of magic realism she deftly introduces her true theme: how an ability to accommodate desire enlivens not only the individual heart but a society cornered by change."
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The Mistress of Spices
A Novel
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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