Mistress of Spices by Chitralekha Banerjee

Time is difficult to understand. If your heart is set on something, it simply flies by and makes you feel as if you were engrossed for only a moment, but a boring activity makes it stretch indefinitely. Well, for me, the way time has behaved becomes an important factor in deciding my like or dislike of a book.

However, some times, the time seems eternal, without being restricted by any boundaries and I am simply immersed in a novel, without any regard for the genre or story. The same is true of the novel, I am going to review today. It is a novel transcending boundaries of time and space, as eternal and infinite as universe, as deep as an ocean and as challenging to understand as human emotions.

Well, I am talking about The Mistress of Spices, first novel by Chitra Banerjee, which in keeping with my tradition, I have read after going through the entire gamut of her creations. While, Palace of Illusions created a stir in my heart with its mythical grandeur, Sister of My Heart set it aflutter with Chitra’s unfailingly exquisite portrayal of women, and Vine of Desire further entangled my soul into Chitra’s world leading me gently to her first born – The Mistress of spices.

The novel has a timeless, ageless woman Tilottama as the protagonist. She is as ambiguous as her name, at times she is the Great Dancer of Indra, and at times the Mistress of Spices, commanding a power to look into peoples’ inner world, making a difference in their lives without their even knowing it. She has spices as her biggest allies and can make them do anything and improve or destruct this world in her objective, passive manner.

But, what happens when Tilottama is bitten by the American culture and becomes the passionate Tilo, whose heart aches for the love of a man, who is ready to forgo all her powers and break all the rules of the Spices World, to become the cynosure of Raven’s eyes. Will she be able to shed her inhibitions and slip into overwhelming yet the most ordinary garb of a lover, or will she check herself in time and exercise caution and be a Mistress forever, healing those who need her help, with her miraculous formulas of methi, jeera and mirchi?

When I started reading this novel, it struck me as an amateurish attempt to create an over fantasied, exotic Asian World, to charm the Americans and pacify their thirst for the unknown, hidden powers of Indians. However, once I got into the flow, Chitra’s brilliance impressed me once again. The story became immaterial in her deft hands, and the magical power of spices stretched my appetite for fantasy and I found myself immersed and impressed by the smallest events of the dreary life of Tilo. The small twists in the tale made me wait for the next page anxiously and in the end, I was satisfied that I endured the slightly obscure pages, did not let the boring passages drown my enthusiasm and pursued the novel to its very end, and was content with the unique sensuous, magical world.

Though, I found it a little strange, that in this novel, Chitra did not use any special literary techniques, which I have come to expect of her. Still, I liked the novel for its sheer novelty. And going by the fact that this was Chitra’s first attempt, the novel is worth a read.


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