Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Tilo, an immigrant from India, runs an Indian spice shop in Oakland, California. While she dispenses the classic ingredients for curries and kormas, she also helps her customers to gain a more precious commodity: whatever they most desire. For Tilo is a Mistress of Spices, a priestess of the secret, magical powers of spices.

Through those who visit and revisit her shop - Ahuja's wife, caught in an unhappy, abusive marriage; Jagjit, the victim of racist attacks at school; the noisy bougainvillaea girls, rejecting the strict upbringing of their tradition-bound Indian parents; Haroun who drives a taxi and dreams the American dream - we get a glimpse into the life of the local Indian expatriate community. To each Tilo dispenses wisdom and the appropriate spice: coriander for sight; turmeric to erase wrinkles; cinnamon for finding friends; fenugreek to make a rejected wife desirable again; chillies for the cleansing of evil. But when a lonely American comes into the store, a troubled Tilo cannot find the right spice, for he arouses in her a forbidden desire, and following her own desires will destroy her magical powers.

Goodreads Description

There seems to be a strand of magic realism that focuses on food, which is portrayed as having magical power. Examples already featured in this blog include Joanne Harris' ChocolatThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate. This book is another - the spices are portrayed as spirits speaking to Tilo about how to treat her customers, punishing her when she goes against their wishes. It is interesting to consider why this should be - is it because our senses and sensations are so strong at times that we experience them as magical? In my own book I give my heroine synesthesia, which allows her to see smells, however I do not claim this ability as magical. But then where does a natural condition end and magic begin?

I really enjoyed the realistic elements of this book - the portrayals of the Indian community members in Oakland. Although not Asian, I worked in an area with several large South Asian communities and was involved in the setting up and running of a number of projects to meet the communities' needs, including a helpline for battered women. The stories rang true to me and to be honest I wanted more. 

The elements that didn't work so well were the magical/fantasy ones. I found the story of Tilo's childhood, youth and training as a Mistress of Spices too fantastical. There seemed to be no historical setting for them. Moreover the rules that Tilo must abide by didn't seem to have a logic other than to create tension. In fact there were a number of points where the internal logic of the story didn't work. Why did the "lonely American" see through Tilo's old woman exterior to the beautiful woman inside? What was the point of the lonely American's dream of Tilo helping him find the earthly paradise?  
I know some of you will be saying, "This is fantasy; magic realism doesn't need logic." I beg to differ. I think that in order for magic to work in magic realism there needs to be a framework of logic, otherwise magic realism can rightly be criticised as being a lazy way of dealing with storylines. Moreover I believe that magic realism needs grounding in realism, not just in terms of the realistic world in which the magic exists, but in something profound and real being revealed through the magic. Others may choose to differ. Your comments are welcome. 


Marsha A. Moore said...

Zoe, I agree that magical realism needs a framework of reality. Otherwise, the intrigue of attempting to decipher the line between magic and reality, one of the definite pleasures of the genre, becomes meandering and meaningless. I enjoy magical realism with food themes, but this plot seems lacking. Thanks for your review.

sangita said...

Mam, I do agree with you as The Mistress of Spices lacks logic.Especially the last few pages if Tilo looses her magical power then how and why she takes the decision to go back to Oakland?
Whether she looses the power or not again remains the problem.
Please guide me.