The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Mistress of Spices

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 alll on the island.

But the spices are my love.

I know their origins, and what their colours 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.

Tilo has given up all worldly things to become a Mistress, a woman with the skill to manipulate the powers inherent in spices. This is no metaphorical sacrifice. Tilo is magically transposed into an aged, crooked body, a form she willingly adopts in place of her true youthful form. Not only that, but a Mistress lives solely within the walls of her shop, thence to dole out the various spice-remedies that others need to help with difficulties in their lives, committed to aid the local Indian community without getting too close to anyone.

And the penalties for failure are harsh. A Mistress who steps away from her chosen path is punished, but more than that, there’s the threat of further suffering to all those for whom she might care too much. Tilo knew all this when she chose to take on the role, and she did it despite the dire warnings of her mentor, who sensed in her a tendency to rebel.

Throughout the story we see a woven tapestry of the local community, sampled through those who come to Tilo’s shop. For the most part, they don’t ask for help, sometimes not even realising they need it. But they don’t have to voice their worries: a part of Tilo’s power is to see beyond the surface of her customers, sensing the pain and anguish beneath the forced smiles; to draw out their problems and identify the spices that will soothe their troubles away. The range of spices employed will be familiar with anyone who has explored Indian cuisine, but here they are each given a distinct emotional character as well as a rich flavour profile, employed to help and to heal according to their natures. Tilo’s skill at drawing out the magic is evident from the beginning, as is her love for those she serves.

And then a lonely American man walks in, and everything changes for Tilo. His image fills her thoughts and dreams. The Mistress finds herself increasingly tempted to stray from her shop, going out into the world to seek out those she wishes she could help, and gradually discovering a world beyond her own four walls — all the while, haunted by the threat of the consequences her transgressions may bring.

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