Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mistress of Spices

Sometimes I buy vintage books, or used books, and within the cover are written inscriptions...the book had been a gift to someone special.
"From Mommy..." or comments hoping the receiver will be as delighted by the story as was the giver.
I wonder why I now hold the book in my hands--why it was not kept and treasured and held close.

So too old library books. Who checked this out? Who read these pages? What stories could the book tell beyond its own?

Today, in a lazy afternoon, I finished reading Mistress of Spices, a novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
As a passage would move me, I would dog-ear the page, intending to come back to the words and save excerpts.
Over and over again, I would find the pages already creased, previously dog-eared, sometimes little stars in red pencil marking paragraphs.
Who was similarly moved?
Who is this person with the red pencil?
I'm intrigued.

The book is fantasy, folklore and fable.
It is old wives tails and spells and the symbolism that I love.
The story unfolds around an Indian woman, cloaked in a body of one who is old, but actually a young sage, sent to help Indian patrons with their problems.
She lives in Oakland, in a spice shop.
The spices are living--they whisper to her, they grow angry at times.
The spices have power.
It is the spices, too, that offer healing to those with needs for safety, or love, or finding a way.
The woman pounds them into powders, or cuts them into pieces--they become potions for some, and for others they are simple ingredients in food, though the magic is the same.
Amazon describes the story: Tilo, proprietress of the Spice Bazaar in Oakland, California, is not the elderly Indian woman she appears to be. Trained as a mistress of spices, she evokes the magical powers of the spices of her homeland to help her customers. These customers, mostly first- or second-generation immigrants, are struggling to adapt their Old World ideals to the unfamiliar and often unkind New World. Though trapped in an old woman's body and forbidden to leave the store, Tilo is unable to keep the required distance from her patrons' lives. Her yearning to join the world of mortals angers the spices, and Tilo must face the dire consequences of her disobedience.

Here are some excerpts to give you, the, ahem, flavor.
Fennel,which is the spice of Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people. Waists that have given up, mouths drooping with the weight of their average lives that once dreamed would be so different. Fennel, brown as mud and bark and leaf dancing in a fall breeze, smelling of changes to come. (page 108)

I try to think but inside my skull is a jumble of broken parts, thought shards whose ends do not fit each other.
"Ultimately,the Mistresses are without power, hollow reeds only for the wind's singing. It is the spice that decides, and the person to whom it is given. You must accept what they together choose and even with failure be at peace...
But when you lean out past what is allowed and touch what is not, when you step beyond the old rules, you increase the chance of failing a hundredfold. The old rules which keep the world in its frail balance, which have been there forever, before me, before the other Old Ones, before even the Grandmother.
" (page 148)

The death of my father cut me free of all ties, all caring. I was like a boat that had come unmoored, bobbing in an ocean filled with treasure troves and storms and sea monsters, and who knew where I would end up. (page 258)

"Say goodbye to her for us. Say thanks for all her help. Say we will always remember her."
I am moved by the warmth in their voices. Even though I know that what they say, what they believe, is an illusion. Because in time all things are forgotten. Still, I imagine them walking this street next month, next year, pointing. 'There once was a woman here. Her eyes like a magnet-rock drew out your deepest secret,' they say to their children. "Ah, what-all she could do with spices. Listen carefully."
And they tell my story.
(page 281)

But I know that rules broken must be paid for. Balance upset must be restored. For one to be happy, another must take upon herself the suffering.
A tale comes to me from my forgotten childhood: In the start of the world, searching for the nectar of immortality, the gods and demons churned up halahal, bitterest poison from the primal ocean. Its fumes covered the earth, and all creatures, dying, cried out their terror. Then the great Shiva took in his cupped hands the halahal and drank it. The dreadful poison burned in his throat, turning it a bruised blue that remains to this day. Ah, even for a god it must have been painful. But the world was saved.
I Tilo am no goddess but an ordinary woman only. Yes, I admit it, this truth I have tried to escape all my life. And though once I thought I could save the world, I see now that I have only brought happiness into a few lives.
And yet, is that not enough.
(page 318)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barb: There are so many wonderful metaphors in this book. Each of the spices represents those aspects of our personalities and of daily opportunities that we often gloss over or ignore. The mistress of spices is the person who finally (as the heroine does) grabs hold of her life and makes it what she wants it to be. I loved this book immensely even though I had to read it for a course at college.

4:41 AM  

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