Wednesday, 7 December 2011
THE DIASPORIC VISIONS IN THE MISTRESS OF SPICES
Dr. D. B. GAVANI Award winning writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni In her first full-length novel, The Mistress of spices, adopts a more complex strategy for portraying diasporic Identity. She makes use of fable in order to explore the various kinds of problems encountered by immigrants. Who come to the promised land of silver pavements and golden roofs. Divakaruni herself says for what reason, she has written this novel: "I wrote in a spirit of play, collapsing the divisions between the realistic world of twentieth century America and the timeless one of myth and magic in my attempt to create a modern fable."1 In this novel the first person narrative has been adopted from the perspective of Tilo or Tilotama, who has trained to extract the essence of the spices and make them to alleviate pain, solve problems and help people live better lives. The Mistress of spices -the deliberate gendering of the word to under cut the power associated with mastery supernatural powers is to be noted. She can presage disasters and look into the hearts of people, only in her hands "the spices sang back", her trainer, the 'old one', had told her signifying that Tilo would never be the submissive, compliant mistress thai she was expected to be. But Tilotama or Tilo as she calls herself, is not infallible sometimes the problems of the Diaspora are too convoluted for her to deal with. Tilo runs a spice store in Oakland, California. Where she has re created little India which boasts of all the spices that ever were even the lost ones. "I think I do not exaggerate when I say there is no other place in the world quite like this"2 She says of her store which attracts a large group of people for whom the place is reminiscent of home, a little oasis in their diasporic lives fraught with problems. The Mistress of spices feels that the Indians come to her store in quest of happiness: "All those voices, Hindioriya Assamese, Urdu, Tamil, English, layered one on the other like notes from tanpura, all those voices asking for happiness except no one seems to know where".3 But even within the structure of the fable Divakaruni has underscored opaque nature of national borders. The Mistress of spices is allowed by the powers that be to work magic only for the good of her own people- i.e., Indians. The others, they must go elsewhere for their need', the first mother, the senior perceptor, had warned her National boundaries become aggressive, all important in the Diaspora, as a way of defining identity, aliminality that marks the contours of one's experience, a platform for resisting co-optation by the dominant/hegemonic discourse. The spice store with its sacred, secret shelves functions as a geographical/textual space that is the repository of a monolithic national identity. The store represents a space for 'self indulgence'. "Dangerous for a brown people who come from elsewhere, to whom real Americans might say why?"4 The Mistress of spices is the benign spirit who hovers over Indians living in America. But for Divakaruni, assuaging the pain of diasporic life is more complex. Jaggi (Jagjit) is estranged and racially marked. A timid child, he is assaulted at school for not knowing English, for not belonging: "Talk English son of a bitch. Speak up nigger wetback asshole".5 Tilo's attempts at restoring confidence to the little boy combined with the pressures to conform transforms him into an aggressive young man who has been offered protection by a group of boys. In exchange they have asked him to 'carry this packet here, drop off this box there'. Jaggi is carrying out his duties conscientiously waiting to turn fourteen when he will get his coveted gift: "cold and black, shining and heavy with power in (his) hand, pulsing electric as life, as death (his) passport into real America."6 Tilo is shocked and wonders whether it is her spice-remedy, Jaggi's parents or America that have driven him to become a drug trafficker, who is perhaps on his way to becoming an armed gangster. The little boy has become jagjit by getting his back on those 'jeering voices, the spitting mouths, the hands; in the playground that had assaulted him. For every immigrant who makes it in America, assimilates and prospers economically. There are others who lose their jobs or worse, their children. In their introduction to an anthology of writings by South Asian in North America, Sunaina Maira and Rajni write: "For first -generation South Asians, issues of belonging become increasingly complicated the longer they stay in North America, and even more profoundly. Boundaries between ethnicities, class, gender and religion dissolve and re-emerge, as second generation South Asians....of contested identities and contested forms of belonging (or not belonging) in North America." The complexities of diasporic negotiations are underpinned by questions of identify, and Divakaruni novel tries to capture the nuances that contest the stereotypical images of South Asians as model minorities and unobtrusive citizens. The Mistress of spices offers a close look at a wide spectrum of Indians residing in the diaspora. Like in the composition of any community Indians too have the rich diasporic for whom perhaps the immigrant experience has been one of cultural dispossession and material acquisition: "The rich Indians descend from hills that twinkle brighter than stars..... Their cars gleam like waxed apples, glide like swans over the potholes outside my store." 8 But Tilo, the ministering angel, is more concerned with those who need her help. In continuum with the title, each chapter is named after a spice and discusses the trails and tribulations of an individual and the special characteristics of the spices for instance: "Each spice has day special to it..... color of day break and conch-shell sound. Turmeric the preserves, keeping foods safe in a land of.....heat and hunger. Turmeric the auspicious spice, placed on the....over coconuts at pujas, rubbed into borders of wedding saris."9 Thus, the reader gets the glimpses of spices into a range that surrounds the life of the diasporic Indian. Mrs. Ahuja's story is a story of dispossession. She left the settled, comfortable life at her father's house, when she was married to a violent man, an alcoholic who abuses her. Unhappy in domestic life, she wants to start again in America, but she cannot drown out those voices of conditioning that outlined womanly duties for her, 'the voices, we carried them all the way inside our heads". 10 The Mistress's tools can dismantle Ahuja's house but only when she, herself, is ready for the challenge; the Mistress helps Mrs. Ahuja She becomes Lalita by overthrowing the tyrannical structures that have weighed her down, compelled her to be brutally raped night after night by her husband. Lalita leaves her husbands and seeks refuge at abattered women's shelter. For Geeta, Tilo mixes several ingredients, ginger for deeper courage, fenugreek for healing breaks and 'amchur' for deciding right. Geeta's Predicament stems from the fact that, she is part of a paradigmatic diasporic family, where a clash between the first generation and second generation South Asians is inevitable. Her parents have 'given' plenty of independence, but they cannot accept her boy friend. In fact, they are horrified that, she would choose to be with a Chicano man and cut her off completely. Geeta, the second generation South Asian is not prepared for this volt face; she is shocked by the elements of reaction to Juan. Discussing the conflict between generations in the American Diaspora, Sunaina Maira and Rajni writes:"The relationship between the generations is complex and nuanced. Second - generation South Asians, having come of age in a post civil Rights era, often refuse to be treated as other by mainstream culture; at the same time many question the uncritical acceptance of the need for assimilation. The political involvement of the second generation, in its building of alliances with other people of color, often conflicts with the first generation's political agenda, which is typically more rooted in home - country interests". 11 For the second generation Indian like Geeta, the questions about identity are differently poised. She challenges continuous identification with patriarchal traditions which she associates with her grandfather. Tilo empathizes with Geeta, tries to assenge their pain and the novel tells us that she succeeds in restoring harmony within the family. Tilo or Tilotama, The Mistress of spices is really a young woman who is required by the dictates of the order to disguise herself as an old woman, thus accentuating her asexuality and inducing anonymity and restraint. She cannot be aware of her own body: "Once the Mistress has taken on her magic Mistress-body, she is never to look on her reflection again". 12 She is required to bury her own desires and prioritize those of others: "A Mistress must carve her own wanting out of her chest, must fill the hollow left behind with the needs of those she serves". 13 Tilo transgresses many boundaries for those who need her help, but she cannot be contained within this frame work. It is not hard to see that as in 'Arranged Marriage', Divakaruni is writing the script of women's rebellion against the pressure to suppress their desires and their bodies. The order of Mistresses clearly replicates patriarchal struggles and Tilo must be made to break free of them. She struggles with her own passions as she builds emotional relationship with a Native American man, whom she calls Raven. She transforms herself into a woman, feeling guilty about her "self indulgence", but decides to brave the retribution that she would have to face. At the level of body-politics, Tilo's re-formulations about her body, her desire to have a sexual relationship with Raven outside of institutional sanctions, go against the laws of the order of Mistresses. But, Tilo knows the danger, she is in. She can always sense it. Hence, she tells Raven, who wants to escape with her to an earthly Paradise: "Our love would never have lasted, for it was based upon fantasy, your and mine, of what it is to be Indian. To be American.... There is no earthly paradise. Except that we can make back there, in the soot, in the rubble, in the crisped-away flesh. In the guns and needles, the white drug dust, the young men and women lying down to dreams of wealth and power and wailing in cells, yes, in the hate, in the fear".14 However, the novel validates women's empowerment through articulation of their desires. As with her Protagonists in the shorts stories, Divakaruni argues for recognition of women's full control of their bodies. Once Tilo is in touch with her own sexuality, she can no longer assuage others pains or even see in to the future, but she can live the life of a young woman. The mistress has to extinguish herself in order that the woman find her voice, follow her desires and search for an identity outside of that of a ministering angel. She must leave her domain, the beautiful, organized spice store, in order to fulfill desire. At the end of the novel, Tilo becomes Maya, the young woman who has abandoned her special powers, "I who now have only myself to hold me up". 15 and found her new home through an act of cultural translation. The Mistress of spices adopts a more mature structural configuration in order to discuss the Diaspora. Each chapter contains a little vignette about an individual, about a cultural encounter. The stories are then braided together through the novel, the sublets shades caught and developments depicted. In the ways in which, the stories of lives are told and re-told, the text owes much too non- written cultural forms like story telling. A variety of cultural codes and icons are recognized as Tilo weaves her tapestry of different lives become implicated in the lives of Jaggi, Ahuja's wife, and Geeta, to name only a few. Sometimes Tilo asks the question that the audience would have verbalized. Discussing the role of the reader in a fictional form that parallels story telling, Abena Busia writes: "The act of reading becomes an exercise in identification – to recognize life experiences and historic transformations that point the way towards a celebration, a coming together attainable of the past, which are transformed into a gift for the future."16 Busia's comments made in the context of African American narratives are also applicable to the Indian context as well. This informal structure is significant as it woes those skeptical readers who may be alienated by the surreal nature of the central motif, a Prospero like figure solving the problems of diasporic Indians with spice concoctions. More importantly, the easy ambience that accompanies oral narratives allows the reader to almost interact, as it were, with the various characters in the novel and with the storyteller. Tilo, the form of the fable is effectively used in the novel. The 'fabulous' world of the mistress imparts a surreal quality to the novel; the order of the Mistress is and is not patriarchy; the structures overlap and specific histories coincide. One advantage of this literary model is that it continually confounds the category of realism; therefore the events in the novel cannot be processed as information. This is significant in a situation, where writers from South Asia and the Third world in general are mined for 'evidence' of oppression which can then be provided as 'proof of the regressive nature of these societies. Divakaruni's, The Mistress of spices refers its theme of magic realism, lengthy dialogues, and the characters, which touches the heart of the readers, as New Yorker Review Magazine says: "Divakaruni's prose is so pungent that it stains the page, yet beneath the sighs and smells of this brand of magic realism, she deftly introduces her true theme: how ability to accommodate desire enlivens not only the individual heart but a society cornered by change". 17 Divakaruni is fairly prolific as she has written many books in the past ten years: the market dynamics of the First world will make her work available to a large, cosmopolitan audience. Readings of her work produce new meanings and new sites of contestation. Therefore she cannot claim to be outside of the power struggling that revolves around the authenticity of voice within the Indian community in the diaspora. There are many versions of history being produced and the questions of history being produced and the questions of what's being said, by whom and who is representing who, becomes pertinent. However, Divakaruni's, The Mistress of spices gives plenty of sources on diasporic grounds. It enhances the Indian glory, into the past and present world. The intermingling of both cultures reflects more on Indian immigrants, who are curious of Indian land. The magical realism of the east, the exotic land viewed by western eyes, glance the Indian beauty of spices and their magic. The diasporic aspects which we come across in the Mistress of spices gives the sources of changing the names of characters, which the Indians all in alien shores, as Tilotama becomes Tilo, Jagjit becomes Jaggi, all these visions us the diasporic view, which we refer in this novel. Another basic and foremost aspect of diaspora is, Multiculturalism, as we have come across through the lives of Geeta, Jagjit and Mrs. Ahuja or Lalita. The South Asian diasporic writer, Chitra Divakaruni has attained considerable popularity and is sought after by the big publishing houses. This enhances the anxieties amongst critics and rightly so, as it points to voices that are not being heard or celebrated with same vigor. Divakaruni's texts are powerful and significant; they are particularly effective in mapping the contours of the new south Asian community in the United States. They provide a lens with which to view the struggle for identity amongst women and to develop a critique of patriarchal structures that organize the life of Indian Diasporas. Divakaruni provides all the Indian vision of cultural, traditional and moreover magical realism. Her immigrant experiences spells in her writings and evokes the Americans to see the richness of India and Indian spices, how they create magic in solving the problems of Indian Diasporas. The Problem of Immigrants: The problem of immigrants is always a pathetic world that creates the psyche of rootlessness and marginality moving from one homeland to another leading towards homelessness resulting in search for New Homes. Immigrant writers venture to investigate the discontent of new settlers making desperate attempts to seek their roots in distant cultural surrounding haunted by the lingering shadows of their homeland. Bill Ashcroft, an eminent postcolonial critic, has observes, "Whether it remains permanently disabling or, whether it becomes beginning of transformation of colonial discourse "is a pivot moment in post colonial cultures; since displacement turned into creative resistance" (Ashcroft: 3). Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices is basically a novel constructed on the lines of the technique of Magic Realism. In the background of myth, magic and romance, she presents a wide spectrum of the life and longing existing in the experiences of immigrants. The narrator in the novel is Tilo, a young woman born in another time in a faraway place. She is an expert in the ancient art of spices and is therefore respected as 'Mistress' charged with the special power of magic related with spices. With the passage of time she travels to Oakland, California where she manages a store of spices. She is well acquainted with the specific properties of each spice and recommends spices to her customers with meticulous advice of the curative value of those spices. In this galaxy of customers, once she gets fascinated with the personality of a young boy. With the romantic longing for him, She is supposed to lose control over her powers as the mistress of spices. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni presents the 'store of spices' as the meeting point of all immigrants. She not only sells Indian spices to them but also inspires them to share their personal woes with her. The entire novel, The Mistress of Spices, has been classified with the names of different spices. In the early part of the novel, Tilo reveals her own past and her history of migration from the world of magic to the multicultural society of America. With all sympathy she shares the anguish and experience of immigrants who had chosen America as a land of their dreams. She declares her mission of life, "It seems right that I should have been here always, that I should understand without words their longing for the ways they chose to have behind when they chose America" (5). The very purpose of the store, she puts it, "The store is an excursion into the land of might have been. A self indulgence dangerous or a brown people who come from elsewhere to whom real Americans might say" (6). Through such an effort she seeks the fulfilment in her own life because her own vision of life is torn between the fragmentation of past and present. Divakaruni establishes that the twilight of "here' and 'there' hinders the process of 'wholeness'. It is said, "Space and Time takes on a complex significance because they are not fixed dimensions. There is an interplay between the memory of "there" and the time of "here". (Yocum, 1996, 222) Among Tilo's customers, the first customer is Ahuja's wife, a young and beautiful immigrant woman. The glamour of wealth fascinates her for a marriage with an American. Like other immigrant woman, she struggles with her own feelings of isolation and homelessness. Tilo realises that Ahuja's wife is a victim of cultural apathy and male domination. She tries to record her inner crisis, "All day at home, she is so lonely, the silence like quick sand sucking at her wrists and ankles, tears she cannot stop, disobedience tears spilled pomegranate seeds and Ahuja shouting when he returned home to her swollen eyes" (15). In her immigration, Ahuja's wife becomes more sensitive to her thwarted motherhood. Tilo, being a woman, has the realisation of the pain of immigrant woman who survives with double insecurity resisting the forces of gender apathy and cultural antagonism. She confesses, "This pain stung like ]|ive coats in my chest as the pirates plunge me onto the deck of their ship, as we took sail, as the flaming line of my homeland disappeared over the horizons" (19). Ahuja's wife survives in American society with the insecurity that she will never be able to get her roots there. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, like women writers of Indian diaspora, articulates in her books, "the deepest fear and trauma faced by women in India and here (U.S.A.) show them emerging at least in many cases as stronger and self reliant woman" (Kamath: Interview). Tilo's sympathy remains only with women immigrants but also with the frustrated male immigrants like Jagjeet. Her store becomes a centre for Indian immigrants to relieve their pain and to redefine their position. In their pain, she recollects her own journey: how she was thrown on Dal Lake and was compelled to row Shikara for the pleasure of “American tourists. She was promised, "great things will happen to you in this new land, this America" (25). For Tilo the opportunity to share the anguish of immigrants becomes a defense mechanism, a safer outlet of her unexpressed fears and uncertainty. She declares her own mission, "I, Tilo, architect of American Dream." In American society, Indian immigrants consider themselves marginalised. Tilo tries to reveal the sensibility of Indian immigrants in contrast to the egocentric assertion of American identity. She admits, "It is not as if I haven't seen American. They come in here all the time, the professor type in tweed with patches on jacket elbows or in long skirts in earnest earth colors.”(69). There is a special reference to Geeta who was brought up by her grandparents with Indian moral values. Grandparents never compromise with liberal ways of personal relationship encouraged in America. They express their repugnance for the artificial make-up of Indian girls in America and prefer homespun values for Indian girls. Tilo tries to convince them that the amicable balance in the life of American immigrants is possible only through a fine synthesis of Indian and American styles of living. Geeta and her grandparents represent the two extreme sides of American life and sensibility. Tilo advises Geeta, "Who is India and America all mixed together into a new melody; be forgiving of an old man who holds an to his past with all the strength in his failing hand" (90). Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni admits that the presence of racial consciousness in the mind of immigrants shakes the feeling of otherness. She never felt herself in the mode of a complete identification. By and large, it is a distinction of the vision of Divakaruni in Mistress of Spices that she constructs the entire phenomenon with the ease and excitement of child without being a prey to self-imposed "otherness" often to be found in the life of immigrants and the underneath echoing voice of immigrant writers. Reference: 1. Qtd. Asian Review of books on Internet (www.chitradivakaruni.com/ the mistress of spices) 2. Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee's.The Mistress of spices, Abacus London, 1997 P-03 3. lbid.;P-78 4. lbid.;P-05 5. Ibid.; P-39 6. lbid.;P-120 7. lbid.;P-120 8. Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, ed. Sunaina Maira and Rajni (New York, 1996), P 303. 9. Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee's.’The Mistress of Spices’, Abacus London, 1997 P-75 10. Ibid.; P-78 11. lbid.;P- 12. lbid.;P-103 13. Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America, ed. Sunaina Maira and Rajni (New York, 1996) 14. Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee's.The Mistress of spices, Abacus London, 1997 P-59 15. lbid.;P-69 16. lbid.;P- 70 17. Busia, Abena. "What is your Nation? Reconnecting Africa and Her Diaspora through Marshall's Praise song for the widow".Rutgers University Press. 1989).