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Currying Flavor : THE MISTRESS OF SPICES. By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni . Anchor Books: 338 pp., $22.95

March 09, 1997|SHASHI THAROOR | Shashi Tharoor is the author of "The Great Indian Novel." His nonfiction book "India: From Midnight to the Millennium" will be published this summer by Arcade

A girl born with magical powers. Kidnapped by pirates, whom she then rules. Shipwreck. An enchanted island, where she is tutored by a mystical figure she calls the First Mother. A new name, Tilo. Transmigration, in an old woman's body, to an Indian grocery store in Oakland, Calif., there to serve her community through her spices. Until Tilo, using her otherworldly knowledge to relieve pain, suffering and immigrant angst, meets Raven, an elusive American in quest of an earthly paradise. And Tilo breaks her vows as the Mistress of Spices.

Forgive the fragments--Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's style is catching. The author of a well-received collection of short stories, "Arranged Marriage," Divakaruni has written an unusual, clever and often exquisite first novel that stirs magical realism into the new conventions of culinary fiction and the still-simmering caldron of Indian immigrant life in America. The result is rather as if Isabel Allende met Laura Esquivel in the pages of India Currents--and it works.

The spices are a strong motif, each chapter being named for a spice that Tilo puts to some supernatural use in the narrative. Divakaruni uses their Bengali names--halud, lanka, kalo jire--to deftly conjure a sense of their exotic possibilities, to give their users strength or courage, instill compassion or forgiveness, promote love. Tilo's prosaic occupation, dispensing oils and lentils from her store counter, allows her to meet and help a cross-section of Indian immigrants. Tilo understands "without words their longing for the ways they chose to leave behind when they chose America." She observes them, listens to their stories, sees into their secret fears and sometimes unobtrusively slips a special spice into their grocery-bags to help them prevail over adversity.

Though Divakaruni does the magic rather well, writing about the mystical spices in prose that rises lightly off the page like so many wisps of incense, she is best at the realism. She has a keen feel for immigrant life ("Standing behind counters of dim motels where we must smile as we hand keys to whores. Yes always smile, even when people say 'Bastard foreigner taking over the country stealing our jobs.' ") Her most convincing characters are the minor ones: Rahman, a surgeon from a Pakistani army hospital, who could not requalify in America and so runs a gas station, moonlighting on the side as a medical man for immigrants who won't go to American doctors; or young Jagjit, bullied at school for his turban and his poor English, who comes home every day "from America" to a house steeped in Punjab and soon seeks refuge with gangs, "caught in the cold jaws of America."

Some of Divakaruni's immigrant stories are familiar, but she tells them well enough to overcome the stereotypes. The tale of Geeta, the Americanized daughter of Indian professionals, who is disowned by her supposedly enlightened parents for falling in love with a Hispanic boy, could have been the stuff of cliche, but Divakaruni reaches into the truth behind the cliche and holds it to the light of her emotive prose. One customer at the store is given candy with molasses that Tilo hopes will slow him down so he can "hear the frightened love in [his] father's voice losing [him] to America." An episode about a young Indian storekeeper, Mohan, assaulted by hate-filled "dotbusters"--members of street gangs who go after Indian immigrants--is particularly moving. The attackers' acquittal by the courts leads Mohan to smash and destroy everything he had struggled to acquire and possess in the States. His tragedy is depicted in writing of rare power and directness, all the stronger for its appearance amid the lush lyricism of the rest of the book.

Divakaruni's style is distinctive. Her penchant for sentence fragments, once you get used to her cadences, often works to good effect ("Then she feels it. . . . Taking on its inexorable shape. And suddenly. There is no air. To breathe.") She has an allergy to question-marks that sometimes leads her interrogatories to fall flat. But her narrative is infused with poetry: "silence like quicksand sucking at her wrists and ankles," a woman's fingers "light as an unspoken wish."

If I have one concern, it is with the dilemma so many Indian writers face in rendering their world for foreign readers. Divakaruni manages to walk the fine line between touristy exoticism and untranslatable authenticity, though there are some lapses into the former--"lives caught on karma's wheel," for instance. It's unfortunate, too, that her Indian characters, when speaking good Hindi or Bengali to each other, have their dialogue rendered in the stilted English of a Peter Sellers movie. Divakaruni is too skilled at her craft to need to show us she can fracture a phrase, at the expense of the dignity of her characters.

The central tale of the latter part of the book, involving Tilo with the mysterious Raven, who is coming to terms with an Indian/American identity crisis all his own, did not work for me. But I have no doubt that more romantically inclined readers will react more positively to his high cheekbones, trim waist, abstracted air and "the rasp of regret" in his voice.

As the book unfolds, Tilo begins to weave her own desires into her use of the spices and unavoidably finds herself entering the real world where, free of the mystical powers of the First Mother, she has to make her own choices. In her actions lies a metaphor, perhaps, for the inner journey all immigrants must make as they cross the black water to America. The familiar aroma of their cherished spices is all that remains to connect them to an India whose assumptions they have--some more successfully than others--finally left behind.

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