Pebble-hard fenugreek lies tight and closed in the centre of your palm, colour of sand at the bottom of an old creek. But put it in water and it will bloom free.Tilo runs a spice shop in Oakland, California: outwardly she seems an elderly Indian lady, but in fact she is a Mistress of Spices, able to work magic with the spices she stocks. While she's advising her customers on how to make a really good biriyani, she also provides subtle, often unrequested help with less tangible problems: love, loss, rejection, the heart's desire. One day a lonely American whose name she doesn't know enters the store, and Tilo finds herself prey to the feelings -- and the sense of self -- that she's been forced to set aside by her vocation. Such a shift is dangerous. The spices whispering to Tilo, the spices of whom she seems more servant than mistress, will have their revenge: Tilo will be cleansed anew in Shambati's fire, whether she wills it or not.
Bite the swollen kernels between your teeth and taste its bitter sweetness. Taste of waterweeds in a wild place, the cry of grey geese. Fenugreek Tuesday's spice, when the air is green like mosses after rain. Spice for days when I want to huddle into a quilt stitched with peepul leaves and tell stories like on the island. Except here who would I tell them to. (p. 47)
Each chapter is titled after a different spice, and the trail of those spices -- ginger, fenugreek, red chili, lotus -- follows the shape of the story. Divakaruni's prose is sensual, full of images that speak of somewhere other than the grimy dangerous streets of Oakland, and seems to me to have the rhythm of a solitary woman's stream-of-consciousness muttering. (Tilo's questions to herself, as in the quotation at the head of this review, never have question marks. There is nobody to answer.)
If this were simply a romance, the story of Tilo getting to know the lonely American ("so you think I'm white"), it would be a novel to read and reflect upon. There is more to it, though: the troubles of Tilo's customers are bound up in the expatriate Indian experience in California ("all who have suffered from America"), racist attacks and arranged marriages and the disjunction between women's roles -- and metrics of success -- in Western society and within the family. The characters are not mere stereotypes, though each of them embodies a different aspect of the India-in-America experience. And though the lonely American is not (by definition) Indian, he too has something to teach Tilo, if only that "perhaps we can see each another better than we can ourselves".
Or perhaps it is that Tilo's greatest weakness is her pride: perhaps her lesson is humility.
A beautiful book: again, one I've owned for years and somehow not read until now, and one that I wonder if I'd have appreciated as much when I first acquired it as I do now.