A novel about magical India
A wonderful tale of magic and reality. Beautifully written and soulfully narrated.
Since in our little village there is no real bookstore, I am always doomed to read whatever there is available. Now this is indeed quite often annoying, but sometimes also exciting and surprising. Because very often I find small treasures, really good books that I would have probably never bought, or the most wonderful writers whose names I had never heard of.
And it is exactly what happened to me with this book.
THE MISTRESS OF SPICES
by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
I found it by accident. There it was, all alone in my husband’s office, under a pile of paper, where probably somebody at some point you must have left it behind.
Not a really good omen, but I needed my "stuff".
The book begins with a warning to the reader:
"The spices in this book should be used exclusively under the supervision of an experienced mistress."
Is this a cookbook? I cannot cook! And it said "novel" on the cover.
Suspiciously I flip through the book. The single chapters are named after spices: Turmeric, Cinnamon, Fenugreek, Fennel, Asafoetida, Lotus root, Makaradwaj, Red Chili, Zedrach.... Many of them I never heard of.
Well, let's see, and I continue reading. Maybe I can learn something from it.
And then Tilo’s story begins.
Tilo is an old Indian woman who has come to California on very mysterious ways; in a side street in Oakland she runs a small spice shop. No one knows exactly when the store has opened and where the owner actually came from, one day she was simply there.
Only the readers come to know Tilo’s wonderful and amazing story, on the edge of magic.
When she was a little girl, pirates had attacked her village and burned it down. Only Tilo survived and was taken by the pirates, because she possessed healing powers. After years she can finally escape. Tilo flees to the island of the Ancient Healer. Here, together with other girls, she is trained to become a mistress of spices.
For many years the Ancient Healer teaches the girls the mysterious powers of all spices. Not all girls manage to complete this rough preparation. To be sent out into the world as healers, they have to sacrifice their youth and their personal wishes and desires for good, in order to bring salvation to humanity in a particular place chosen by the Ancient Healer.
A difficult path, which puts the girls to a thorny test. But Tilo succeeds. She walks through the fire of knowledge and self-abandonment and can at this instant see into the hearts of men. She can now feel their deepest and most secret wishes and desires.
Tilo has finally reached her destination. In her small, somewhat dusty, rundown shop in Oakland, she is the Mistress of Spices, a High Priestess, which commands about the magical powers of spices.
Tilo’s shop magically attracts the many Asian immigrants in California. Anyone coming here is looking for healing or the fulfilment of his dreams by means of the spice, which Tilo carefully chooses for him or her. Often, those seeking help are not even aware that they ever needed Tilo’s aid. Many feel a mixture of fear and respect for this old woman, when she adds mysterious recipes and ingredients to their shopping bags, even before a word was spoken.
The spices play a significant role: From the Indian point of view, food is medicine. It can heal not only the sufferings of the body, but also the suffering of the soul. And Tilo looks very deeply into these souls. Whether she wants it or not. Very skilfully the author manages to interleave stories and fates of individuals or entire families in the narrative. Everyday stories about the happiness and sufferings of Indian expatriates in a foreign continent.
One day, however, a young, handsome American enters the spice shop and something extraordinary happens: Tilo cannot find the right spice. This had never happened before.
For Raven – that’s the name of the young man - awakens in Tilo forbidden feelings. It even seems that Raven is the only one who sees her not a
s an old, wrinkled woman, but can still feel the spark of youth in her. However, Tilo knows that she cannot follow her personal desires. Passion would destroy her magical powers. She is immortal only if she renounces love.
Even though her secret magic would allow her to reclaim her youth and her life, the price to pay would be extremely high. Furthermore, such an undertaking would be very risky. Because the spices are the carriers of magic. They live, speak their own language and decide for themselves whether they work their magic or not.
And then … well, I will not tell! You’ll have to read the book!
A wonderful tale of magic and reality. Beautifully written and soulfully narrated: multifaceted and profound, sometimes a little sad and then again funny. The poetic style of the author is not onerous or even incomprehensible, but quite simply beautiful.