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  • The Mistress of Spices
  • Written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385482387
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The Mistress of Spices

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A Novel

Written by Chitra Banerjee DivakaruniAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: September 15, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-47677-7
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Magical, tantalizing, and sensual, The Mistress of Spices is the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers.  Once fully initiated in a rite of fire, the now immortal Tilo--in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman--travels through time to Oakland, California, where she opens a shop from which she administers spices as curatives to her customers.  An unexpected romance with a handsome stranger eventually forces her to choose between the supernatural life of an immortal and the vicissitudes of modern life.  Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, born in India, is an award-winning poet who teaches creative writing at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, where she also serves as president of MAITRI, a helpline for South Asian women.  In 1995 her short story collection Arranged Marriage was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.  Her fourth poetry collection, Leaving Yuba City, was published by Anchor in August 1997.

Excerpt

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.   The store has been here only for a year.  But already many look at it and think it was always.

I can understand why.  Turn the crooked corner of Esperanza where the Oakland buses hiss to a stop and you'll see it.  Perfect-fitted between the narrow barred door of Rosa's Weekly Hotel, still blackened from a year-ago fire, and Lee Ying's Sewing Machine and Vacuum Cleaner Repair, with the glass cracked between the R and the e.  Grease-smudged window.  Looped letters that say spice bazaar faded into a dried-mud brown.  Inside, walls veined with cobwebs where hang discolored pictures of the gods, their sad shadow eyes.  Metal bins with the shine long gone from them, heaped with atta and Basmati rice and masoor dal.  Row upon row of videomovies, all the way back to the time of black-and-white.  Bolts of fabric dyed in age-old colors, New Year yellow, harvest green, bride's luck red.

And in the corners accumulated among dustballs, exhaled by those who have entered here, the desires.  Of all things in my store, they are the most ancient.  For even here in this new land America, this city which prides itself on being no older than a heartbeat, it is the same things we want, again and again.

I too am a reason why.  I too look like I have been here forever.  This is  what the customers see as they enter, ducking under plastic-green mango leaves strung over the door for luck: a bent woman with skin the color of old sand, behind a glass counter that holds mithai, sweets out of their  childhoods.  Out of their mothers' kitchens.  Emerald-green burfis, rasogollahs white as dawn and, made from lentil flour,  laddus like nuggets of gold.  It seems right that I should have been  here always, that I should understand without words their longing for the ways they chose to leave behind when they chose America.  Their shame for that  longing, like the bitter-slight aftertaste in the mouth when one has chewed amlaki to freshen the breath.

They do not know, of course.  That I am not old, that this seeming-body I took on in Shampati's fire when I vowed to become a Mistress is not mine.  I claim its creases and gnarls no more than water claims the ripples that wrinkle it.  They do not see, under the hooded lids, the eyes which shine for a moment--I need no forbidden mirror (for mirrors are forbidden to Mistresses) to tell me this--like dark fire.  The eyes which alone are my own.

No.  One more thing is mine.  My name which is Tilo, short for Tilottama, for I am named after the sun-burnished sesame seed, spice of nourishment.  They do not know this, my customers, nor that earlier I had other names.

Sometimes it fills me with a heaviness, lake of black ice, when I think that across the entire length of this land not one person knows who I am.


Then I tell myself, No matter.  It is better this way.

"Remember," said the Old One, the First Mother, when she trained us on the island.  "You are not important.  No Mistress is.  What is important is the store.  And the spices."

The store.  Even for those who know nothing of the inner room with its sacred, secret shelves, the store is an excursion into the land of might-have-been.  A self-indulgence dangerous for a brown people who come from elsewhere, to whom real Americans might say Why?

Ah, the pull of that danger.

They love me because they sense I understand this.  They hate me a little for it too.

And then, the questions I ask.  To the plump woman dressed in polyester pants and a Safeway tunic, her hair coiled in a tight bun as she bends over a small hill of green chilies searching earnestly: "Has your husband found another job since the layoff."

To the young woman who hurries in with a baby on her hip to pick up some dhania jeera powder: "The bleeding, is it bad still, do you want something for it."

I can see the electric jolt of it go through each one's body, the same every time.  Almost I would laugh if the pity of it did not tug at me so.  Each face startling up as though I had put my hands on the delicate oval of jaw and cheekbone and turned it toward me.  Though of course I did not.  It is not allowed for Mistresses to touch those who come to us.  To upset the delicate axis of giving and receiving on which our lives are held precarious.

For a moment I hold their glance, and the air around us grows still and heavy.  A few chilies drop to the floor, scattering like hard green rain.  The child twists in her mother's tightened grip, whimpering.

Their glance skittery with fear with wanting.

Witchwoman, say the eyes.  Under their lowered lids they remember the stories whispered around night fires in their home villages.

"That's all for today," one woman tells me, wiping her hands on nubby polyester thighs, sliding a package of chilies at me.

"Shhh baby little rani," croons the other, busies herself with the child's tangled curls until I have rung up her purchases.

They keep their cautious faces turned away as they leave.

But they will come back later.  After darkness.  They will knock on the shut door of the store that smells of their desires and ask.

I will take them into the inner room, the one with no windows, where I keep the purest spices, the ones I gathered on the island for times of special need.  I will light the candle I keep ready and search the soot-streaked dimness for lotus root and powdered methi, paste of fennel and sun-roasted asafetida.  I will chant.  I will administer.  I will pray to remove sadness and suffering as the Old One taught.  I will deliver warning.

This is why I left the island where each day still is melted sugar and cinnamon, and birds with diamond throats sing, and silence when it falls is light as mountain mist.

Left it for this store, where I have brought together everything you need in order to be happy.
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

About Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - The Mistress of Spices
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is the author of the bestselling novels Queen of Dreams, Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, and The Vine of Desire, and of the prizewinning story collections Arranged Marriage and The Unknown Errors of Our Lives. She lives in Houston, Texas, and teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.
Praise

Praise

"An unusual, clever, and often exquisite first novel...The result is rather as if Isabel Allende met Laura Esquivel."
--Los Angeles Times

"Divakaruni's prose is so pungent that it stains the page, yet beneath the sighs and smells of this brand of magic realism she deftly introduces her true theme: how an ability to accommodate desire enlivens not only the individual heart but a society cornered by change."
--The New Yorker

"The Mistress of Spices is a dazzling tale of misbegotten dreams and desires, hopes and expectations, woven with poetry and storyteller magic."
--Amy Tan

"A splendid novel, beautifully conceived and crafted."
--Pat Conroy
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's novels Sister of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices, as well as her collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at and talking about these three books by a gifted writer, whose chameleon-like voice and mastery of rhythm create unforgettable characters and weave stories that are both exotic and familiar, fresh and universal.

About the Guide

In The Mistress of Spices, Divakaruni tells the story of Tilo, a young woman born in another time, in a faraway place, who is trained in the ancient art of spices and ordained as a mistress charged with special powers. Once fully initiated in a rite of fire, the now immortal Tilo--in the gnarled and arthritic body of an old woman--travels through time to Oakland, California, where she opens a shop from which she administers spices as curatives to the local Indian community.

Although it is her duty to remain emotionally detached, Tilo breaks the rules of the spices and is drawn into the lives of the customers in her shop, helping them through their spirals of trouble: abusive husbands, racism, generational conflicts, drug abuse. And when an unexpected romance blossoms with a handsome stranger, Tilo is forced to choose between the supernatural life of an immortal and the vicissitudes of modern life. Spellbinding and hypnotizing, The Mistress of Spices is a tale of joy and sorrow and one special woman's magical powers.

About the Author

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, a devout Hindu, attended a convent school in India run by Irish nuns before she came to the United States in 1976. While most of Sister of My Heart takes place in Calcutta, Divakaruni explores the immigrant experience through Indian women in American cities in both The Mistress of Spices and Arranged Marriage.

Whether set in India or America, Divakaruni's plots feature Indian-born women torn between old and new world values. She uses her sharp insight and skilled use of story, plot, and lyrical description to give readers a many-layered look at her characters and their respective worlds, which are filled with fear, hope, and discovery. Whether in California, Chicago, or Calcutta, women learn to adapt and, as a result, discover their own sense of self amidst joy and heartbreak.

Divakaruni did not write fiction until she finished her doctoral studies in English at the University of California at Berkeley. In speaking of her path to fiction writing, she notes that academic writing didn't "touch my heart. It had nothing to do with my real life as an immigrant woman in America." Instead, she says of her fiction: "It was important for me to start writing about my own reality and that of my community."

In addition to her novels and short stories, Divakaruni has published four other volumes of poetry, including the Award-winning Leaving Yuba City, which includes a story, awarded a Pushcart Prize, and a story which won an Allen Ginsberg Prize. Arranged Marriage was awarded the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The Mistress of Spices was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (England) and chosen by the Los Angeles Times as one of the best books of 1997.

Unlike many of the heroines in her works, Divakaruni chose her own husband, and she praises his support for the work she does. They have two children.

Discussion Guides

1. The New York Times Book Review states that The Mistress of Spices "becomes a novel about choosing between a life of special powers and one of ordinary love and compassion." Did Tilo choose correctly? Why or why not?

2. How do the spices become characters in the novel?

3. Tilo only speaks her name out loud to one person in the novel. What is the significance of this action? What role do names play in the novel?

4. What do the spices take from Tilo? What do they give her? Is it a fair exchange?

5. Tilo left her shop for the first time early in the novel to look at Haroun's cab. But later she is drawn even further out by Raven. Was her course already set at that point? Would she have left again even without Raven's pull?

6. In what ways is punishment seen as a natural force in this novel? How are punishment and retribution tied to balance?

7. Tilo says, "Better hate spoken than hate silent." Does hate spoken achieve the effect Tilo intends or not?

8. Divakaruni chose to write The Mistress of Spices in the first person present tense. Does this point of view add or detract from the story?

9. What passages of the novel resemble poetry? How does Divakaruni make use of lyricism and rhythm?

10. What role does physical beauty play in this story? In Tilo's feelings about her body? About Raven? About the bougainvillea girls?

11. Does Raven's story (pp. 161-171) differ from Tilo's story of her past at the points where she tells it? Do these differences say anything about the differences between women and men, or between Indians and Americans?

12. How are physical acts of violence and disaster foreshadowed in the novel? What is the significance of foreshadowing in Indian culture?

13. For Discussion: Divakaruni's Novels and Stories

What do the characters in Divakaruni's novels and stories lose and gain as they become more "American"?

14. In the story "Affair," Abha says, "It's not wrong to be happy, is it? To want more out of life than fulfilling duties you took on before you knew what they truly meant?" How is this idea further developed in The Mistress of Spices? In Sister of My Heart?

15. In Divakaruni's stories, women are wives and mothers, but the men are portrayed primarily as husbands, not fathers. How are the men's roles in the novels similar to or different from those in the stories?

16. How does the Indian immigrant experience compare to that of other immigrants--Spanish, Italian, Chinese?

Suggested Readings

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Vikram Chandra, Love and Longing in Bombay; Pang-Me Natasha Chang, Bound Feet and Western Dress: A Memoir; Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street; Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory; Anita Desai, In Custody; Kiran Desaï, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard; Louise Erdrich, Tracks; Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate; E. M. Forster, A Passage to India; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Bharati Mukherjee, Jasmine; V. S. Naipaul, A Wounded Civilization; R. K. Narayan, The World of Nagaraj; Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things; Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman; Julie Shigekuni, A Bridge Between Us; Alice Walker, The Color Purple.

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