I read The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni many moons ago. I was a college student and reading literary novels and essays and the required literary criticism, like all good English majors do. But I was bored and found myself fighting to keep my eyes open after reading yet another western, white male writer. Not that there is anything wrong with reading white male writers. But my life seemed to be consumed by them and I could not relate to any of them or their stories. (Except for the part where they locked themselves away in their studies, you know, those studies that are filled with overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases, where they whiled away the hours writing, which I envied.)
I never stopped to think about why it was that I was only given male authors to study and I hope today it’s different at universities across the country. But when I read the first few lines of The Mistress of Spices I realized I was missing something in my life: women writers who wrote interesting stories about the nuances of life and provided a satisfactory happy ending.
The Mistress of Spices is one such book. The main character, Tilo, is trained from birth to understand the magic of the spices. When Tilo’s training is complete, she is ordained as a Mistress of Spices. Tilo is magically transported to Oakland, California where she practices her magic while running a spice shop. Although she is young and beautiful, she is placed inside the body of an elderly woman.
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.
Through Tilo’s spices, and her new identity inhabiting the body of an elderly woman, she begins to live her destiny, which is to fix the lives of others.
Each chapter is named after a spice. For example, one of the chapters is titled “Fennel” because fennel is the “spice for Wednesdays, the day of averages, of middle-aged people.” Tilo orders a customer in an abusive marriage to take a pinch of fennel, promising her that it will give her mental strength for what she must do. Tilo doesn’t say anything else. After all, no one must know what or who she really is.
One day Tilo meets a man named Raven who looks into her eyes and sees exactly who she really is. Raven knows that she isn’t an old woman and slowly they begin to fall in love with each other. However, this is against the rules for Tilo and falling in love causes a catastrophe. It’s a wonderful, magical story that has stayed with me all these years.
Which tea shall we pair with this book? I think a chai tea pairs best. Tilo would certainly approve of all the spices that go into this Chai tea by Fortnum & Mason (my favorite purveyor of teas).