I must say that I avoided adding my thoughts on this book to the FTB blog until arm-twisted into doing so by three persuasive readers. Why? Well, just because a book features spices as an integral part of its name (and plot), doesn’t necessarily mean the book has anything to do with food.
However, several interesting email exchanges later, I am willing to concede that maybe – just maybe – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices is not only about food and its ability to heal, but also about travel – physical and metaphysical.
Those of you who aren’t into books may have seen the movie, starring the delicious (?) Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (known fondly in filmi magazine circles as Bahurani, I’m told) as Tilotamma or Tilo, the protagonist.
Kidnapped by pirates as a child, Tilo is eventually apprenticed to a mysterious “healer” who revealing to her the secrets of Indian spices, and teaches her how to use them for cooking as well as for healing the problems of ordinary mortals.
When her learning is complete, she is ordained as a Spice Mistress, and dispatched to work at a spice shop in faraway Oakland, California, in the guise of an old crone. There, she puts her healing powers to use for the good of the community, resolving their problems of lovelessness, guilt, anger, shame, and despair with the aromas of chilli, turmeric, ginger, and other spices.
As a Spice Mistress, Tilo is forbidden from revealing her true identity or becoming emotionally involved with her customers – but predictably, defies these strictures, even at the risk of losing her powers over the spices she so loves.
The tale is based on the premise that individual spices have the power to heal, cure and restore happiness and well-being. Each chapter tells the story of a specific spice (peppercorn, turmeric, chilli…), of the people who consume it, and of the positive power it wields in their lives.
If you like straightforward, “first-she-went-there-then-she-did-that” works of fiction, this book will leave you floundering. Tilo’s story weaves between present and past, between fable, fantasy, and present day narrative. The language is lush, the descriptions vivid. Between the covers of The Mistress of Spices lie more than a hint of mysticism, several stories-within stories, and individual tales of love, loss, hope, and grief that result from traveling to and transplanting oneself in an alien place and culture – as Tilo has done.
Overall, a good, old-fashioned, escapist read.