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The Mistress of Spices (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)


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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.


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When you open the bin that sits by the entrance to the store you smell it right away, though it will take a little while for your brain to register that subtle scent, faintly bitter like your skin and almost as familiar.

Brush the surface with your hand, and the silky yellow powder will cling to the pads of your palm, to your fingertips. Dust from a butterfly wing.

Bring it to your face. Rub it on cheek, forehead, chin. Don't be hesitant. For a thousand years before history began, brides--and those who long to be brides--have done the same. It will erase blemishes and wrinkles, suck away age and fat. For days afterward, your skin will give off a pale golden glow.

Each spice has a day special to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.

Turmeric which is also named halud, meaning yellow, color of daybreak and conch-shell sound. Turmeric the preserver, keeping foods safe in a land of heat and hunger. Turmeric the auspicious spice, placed on the heads of newborns for luck, sprinkled over coconuts at pujas, rubbed into the borders of wedding saris.

But there is more. That is why I pick them only at the precise moment when night slides into day, those bulbous roots like gnarly-brown fingers, why I grind them only when Swati the faith-star shines incandescent in the north.

When I hold it in my hands, the spice speaks to me. Its voice is like evening, like the beginning of the world.

I am turmeric who rose out of the ocean of milk when the devas and asuras churned for the treasures of the universe. I am turmeric who came after the nectar and before the poison and thus lie in between.

Yes, I whisper, swaying to its rhythm. Yes. You are turmeric, shield for heart's sorrow, anointment for death, hope for rebirth.

Together we sing this song, as we have many times.

And so I think at once of turmeric when Ahuja's wife comes into my store this morning wearing dark glasses.

 
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    Excerpted from The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Copyright © 1997 by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.