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The Spice of Life

Chitra Divakaruni
George Sakkestad

Sister of the Heart: Realism, fantasy and Indian myths commingle in the rapturous prose of Chitra Divakaruni.

Sunnyvale novelist Chitra Divakaruni talks about 'The Mistress of Spices' and the illusory power of the material world

By Morton Marcus

TWO YEARS AGO in Metro, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Sunnyvale resident, Foothill College teacher and award-winning poet turned fiction writer, concluded our interview by saying she was at work on her first novel. The interview had been prompted by the publication of her first book of short stories, Arranged Marriage, and by years as fellow writers discussing the arts of poetry and fiction. Before the year was out, Arranged Marriage had won several awards, much critical acclaim and a large readership.

Now the novel she spoke of, The Mistress of Spices, has appeared to even greater accolades. It has been on the Bay Area bestseller list since its first week of publication, has now reached the national bestseller lists (selling out its initial edition of 30,000 copies within the first four weeks of its arrival at bookstores), was reviewed in The New York Times, has been sold to a Hollywood film company with shooting scheduled for this summer and is being translated into 13 languages.

Whereas Arranged Marriage was a collection of realistic stories dealing with the personal and social difficulties of Indian women living in the United States, The Mistress of Spices is, as Divakaruni describes it, "not realistic. It's about an Indian woman named Tilo who moves to Oakland and opens a spice shop. She's magic. She knows about the secret powers of the spices and can intuit the problems and needs of the people who come to her shop."

The novel is also a love story whose outcome keeps the reader in rapturous suspense from beginning to end, and a depiction of the harsh realities of inner-city life, mixed with a sense of a mythic world paralleling this one, is nothing less than enthralling.

By the time I met with Divakaruni for this interview, the novel had received so much press and radio coverage, I decided to ask questions usually not put forward in literary interviews, questions concerning her innermost intentions in writing the book and the peculiar circumstances that motivated the work.

I began by noting the difference in the two books and asked why she had taken the risk of plunging into fantasy when she had already secured a large following and critical praise with the realistic Arranged Marriage.

"First, I believe a writer should push boundaries, and I wanted to try something new, take risks," Divakaruni replied. "But more to the point, the risk-taking came out of a near-death experience I had two and a half years ago with the birth of my second child, Abhay, who was born of a Caesarean operation that went wrong. My incisions became infected and I had to have another surgery.

"I was in the hospital for a month and only half-conscious most of the time. I had the sense that I was hovering between life and death. It was a strange sensation--not frightening but dreamlike, and I felt at that point that we could move back and forth between these two states, and that this is something we don't comprehend when we're living our daily lives; that, really, we are always moving between life and death and new life. I think that experience gave birth to the main character of the book, Tilo, the mistress of spices, who moves back and forth between one existence and another."

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A large index of Divakaruni-related links.

Metro article from last year about Divakaruni.

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IF THAT WAS SO, I said, then it follows that the question of risk has many answers in this context. Divakaruni nodded in agreement. "Since I had been so close to death, I felt I couldn't save anything for later. I wanted to take all the risks I needed to right now.

"Looking at this question from another perspective, you could say that I took three 'literary risks' in the book. I bridged the purely realistic world and the mythic one; I extended my subject matter from dealing exclusively with the Indian-American community to include three other ethnic groups living in the inner city--Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans--and finally, I tried to bring together the language of poetry and prose so the idiom of the book had a lyric quality appropriate to the genre of magic realism."

Divakaruni went on to express her belief that "all this risk-taking goes back to my hospital experience, since one way or another it involves bridging barriers, doing away with boundaries: not only boundaries between life and death, the everyday world and the mythic one, but with the thought that perhaps the boundaries we create in our lives are not real. I'm talking about the boundaries that separate communities and people."

This concept of the falling away of boundaries leads the reader to the main theme of the novel, namely, as Divakaruni says, that "happiness comes from being involved in our human world."

That idea underlies the plot and structure of the novel, and provides the love story with its tension. Tilo, the rebellious immortal, who in the guise of an old woman operates the spice shop, must decide how far to go in helping the troubled mortals she encounters in Oakland's mean streets. More important, she must also decide if she will allow herself to transgress the taboo of loving a mortal, which will cause her to lose her divine existence.

The object of her taboo feelings is Raven, a bitter Native American who finds both psychological and spiritual healing through his love for Tilo and who urges her to run away with him and live a pastoral life he describes as "an earthly paradise," away from the problems of urban America.

book cover

IT IS INTERESTING to note in this context that when Tilo makes her decision, she changes her name to Maya, the Hindu term that defines the everyday world of desire, pain and joy as the world of illusion, a place of inevitable sorrow from which the Hindu is trying to escape.

When asked about this definition, Divakaruni replies, "Maya to me is the illusory power of the world, yes. The world is not what it seems. At the same time, however, Maya is what makes the world human and vulnerable. Raven's mistake is that, like all of us, he's looking for a gated community. Our concept of earthly paradise is to be separate. I believe we have to look at the problems around us and address them, not turn away. You cannot have personal happiness without caring for the larger good."

That notion is clothed in the many-colored raiment of the novel's story--and not the least in Divakaruni's vivid evocation of the magic world beyond our everyday reality, which is so detailed that the reader might wonder if she had used actual Indian myths.

"Yes," she concurred. "I drew on the folk tales I remembered from my childhood, such as the sleeping city under the ocean and the speaking serpents. But I changed them almost completely. The same is true of the spices."

In "Indian folk belief," she continued, "spices are used for more than flavorings. They have magical powers all their own, and they provide remedies for physical maladies as well as cures for spiritual ills. You have to be careful how you use the spices, since their misuse can be dangerous. If you don't follow their rules, the spices can destroy you. In the novel, I made the rules into laws from the divine realm, laws Tilo could not transgress without serious consequences."

"What about the speaking serpents?" I asked, referring to the fantastic creatures who periodically intone their warnings and prophecies in the novel.

"The speaking serpents are a different kind of magic that I only partially understand," she replied. "They represent the grace of the universe, and by that, I mean they are not governed by logic but come to us mortals as a blessing we cannot understand."

Chitra Divakaruni
George Sakkestad

More Than Flavorings: For Divakaruni, spices provide cures for spiritual ills as well as relief from physical maladies.

FABLE, FAIRY TALE, parable for our time, The Mistress of Spices is also a realistic novel. Not only is the atmosphere of contemporary urban America palpably rendered on every page, but the characters are much more than stick-figure ciphers pushed this way and that by the author to prove her thesis. They are fully presented, physically and psychologically, and contain the strengths, weaknesses and quirks all humans do.

"The book is a metaphor," Divakaruni explained, "and the characters are metaphorical. But they are also realistic, very human. They exist on both levels at once. Tilo, for instance, is her own person, but she is also a metaphor for the struggle between social responsibility and personal happiness. I wanted the novel to work in that way, on several levels simultaneously."

And what can Divakaruni's readers expect next from her prolific pen?

"I've already written 50 pages of a new novel I call Sister of My Heart. It's taken from the story 'The Ultrasound' in Arranged Marriage and is about two cousins who are pregnant at the same time, one in America, the other in India. When the husband's family of the Indian cousin finds out she is going to give birth to a girl, they want her to have an abortion.

"In the novel, I'll start with the cousins' childhoods and work my way up to the point where the cousin in India will leave her husband and come to America. I don't know where it will go from there. I do know that I'll explore a number of Hindu myths both girls hear in their youth, so I can show how such stories inform and change us and make us different people because of the circumstances in which we hear them and the way we interpret them."

Sister of My Heart, she concluded, "will be different from The Mistress of Spices in that it will be a realistic novel. At the same time, it will be filled with the mythic stories I mentioned before and written in a poetic language, since it will be told in the cousins' voices, the chapters alternating between each of their perspectives and presented in the first person."

Divakaruni is impatient to get on with the new book, an undertaking that has been made difficult by several coast-to-coast book tours and increasing calls for interviews and public appearances. However, she is not unhappy with the critical acclaim and increasing recognition, since, at the very least, they are adding a new kind of spice to her life.


The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni; Anchor Books; 338 pages; $22.95 cloth.

Poet and novelist Morton Marcus's newest book, When People Could Fly, a collection of short fiction, will be published by Hanging Loose Press later this year.


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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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