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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2013



Abha Shukla Kaushik

Multiple Consciousness as an Identity: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices


If you try to view yourself through the lenses that others offer you, all you will see are distortions; your own light and beauty will become blurred, awkward, and ugly. Your sense of inner beauty has to remain a very private thing.


Women’s Studies have come to be recognised as an important point of discussion in academic and disciplinary fields today. Women’s issues are a major area of concern in post-colonial India especially among Indian English writers. Woman’s search for identity and individuality, her empowerment and emancipation, her journey towards achieving this, her trials and tribulations in the process are the main topics of discussion in their writings.  From the post-colonial perspective woman can be placed in the space of margin in the centre-margin binary as traditionally she has been denied the privileges accorded to men. She was considered an object, a burden or a non-entity who was expected to conform to the image in keeping with a set pattern. However, with the advent of western education things have changed and so has the Indian woman who is familiar with the contemporary thoughts and trends. The situation of the educated, intelligent, middle-class, urban, career women has become precarious because she is rived by conflicting pulls of traditional conditioning and her new found freedom. Image of women in fiction has also undergone a change from traditional portrayals of enduring self-sacrificing women towards conflicted females searching for identity who cannot be defined simply in terms of victim status.

The quest for identity has been an eternal one plaguing mankind since times immemorial. However for a woman the search for her identity was even unthinkable in a patriarchal setup a few centuries ago. Conventionally the identity of a woman is dictated by what others perceive her to be as per the dictates of the society. She is not her own person but an image adjusting and accommodating as per the image predetermined for her. This identity is not the genuine identity but a distortion of the self; an illusion. A woman is thus like the sand dunes that transform every second into a new form and shape. She has always been an enigma; a mystery, who is far more capable of adaptation and flexible to change; a capability she imbibes from a young age as a result of social conditioning. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has given a voice to the enigmatic persona of a woman; the carrier and protector of her culture, and the disguised enchantress possessing secret powers of magic in her novel The Mistress of Spices. Tillottama, the protagonist of her novel represents the shifting nature of a woman’s identity and her powers of transformation.

Tillottama (the Mistress of Spices) is an unusual heroine with character, originality and determination. She moves from strength to strength until she becomes a full fledged Mistress of Spices in a small Indian store in Oakland, California. Her journey is the journey of a woman not only from innocence to maturity but a voyage that criss-crosses the realm of reality and magic, and transcends the confines of geographical borders and cultural specifications. She symbolizes a woman’s quest for identity that evolves and transforms with every milestone in her life.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has very dexterously juxtaposed the world of spices with that of women, as a metaphor of her life and identity; the ever changing, altering world of the spices that creates something new whenever they are used. A woman also assimilates, transforms and evolves with the changing circumstances of her life, especially when she is placed in the position of an immigrant. Tilo’s search and final realization of the self is a result of the ongoing process of self-identification that characterizes the shifting nature of a woman’s identity.

Born as Nayantara, a girl with supernatural abilities in a small village in India, Tilo's gift is her ability to elicit specific powers inherent in spices and use them to cure the maladies of  those around her.  In Tilo's childhood years, pirates storm into her home, murder her entire family and abduct Tilo, taking her on board their ship as a prisoner.  Eventually, Tilo overthrows the pirate captain to become the pirate "queen”, leading [her] pirates to fame and glory, so that bards sang their fearless exploits." (TMS 20) But Tilo abandons this exalted position when mystical sea serpents tell her about the existence of an island upon which she, and other women like her, can develop their supernatural talents to use them for a greater good.  Although Tilo has already begun her diasporic journey, she does not feel the loss of a home, but rather a finding of many.  She sails upon a ship to the island of the Mistresses, a reference to the ‘kala pani’, or "dark water," the term used in order to describe the journey made by indentured laborers and immigrants from the motherland of India to other foreign lands, creating what we today refer to as the "diaspora." Divakaruni presents Tilo as inextricably mired in the workings of  the diaspora, and the entire notion of "home" becomes displaced, transformed into an intangible condition that is not based on a singular location but rather a movement among many places.

This isolated island is a haven for these women, who call themselves the "Mistresses of Spices" and are under the care of  the First Mother, the eldest and wisest teacher of all the women.  The women are trained in the art of listening and controlling the spices, and are then sent forth into the greater world to aid humanity.  After Tilo learns all that she can, she is sent to Oakland, California, to a tiny Indian spice shop where she must begin her duties of healing the masses.  Thus, she is thrust into the chaos of American life and the newness of a culture to which she must adapt. Before Tilo is sent to Oakland, the First Mother gives her a knife as a gift, the purpose of which Tilo believes is " cut my moorings from the past, the future. To keep me always rocking at sea.” (TMS 53) 

Tilo is transported to America by means of "Shampati's Fire," a giant bonfire into which she steps and disappears.  The symbolism of fire is obvious in its action: the destruction of present physical form, and a reduction to ashes that are then scattered to the far corners of  the globe. Divakaruni uses the fire as a metaphor for the recreation of the self and presents identity as erratic rather than permanent.  The actual word "Shampati" is a reference to the "bird of myth and memory who dived into conflagration and rose new from ash," (TMS 58) or what can be considered an Eastern version of the phoenix. Tilo's journey to America is a form of rebirth; it is a literal recreation of the self. 

In Oakland, Tilo is stripped of her youth and constrained in her role as the mistress of the spices, yet her original ‘self’ is not destructed, only suppressed, which often reveals itself in her silent rage; “This disguise falling like old snakeskin around her feet, and I rising red and new and wet-gleaming.” (TMS 49). Tilo is not a Devi, she is a lone woman; her unbridled spirit is domesticated in her withered image like the “...female deities [who] were either sidelined or demonized.” (Mohanty 120) with the gradual transformation of the human society into a patriarchal one. She is to heal and empathize with people but is not to get involved in their sufferings personally. It is as her role as the mistress that she becomes aware of the struggles and trauma of the immigrants like her; re-creating their identity in an alien land. Haroun, Geeta and her grandfather, Jaggi and Lalita are some of the immigrant characters portrayed in the novel who seek the help of Tilo to solve their problems; physical, emotional and psychological.

Her own invisible identity as an immigrant; bound by tradition and aspiring for assimilation into the new is a reflection of all the immigrant identities around her. Haroun and Jaggi face the usual dilemma of an immigrant like problems of adjustment, racism and alienation. The women on the other hand walk the tight rope between their dual roles of being a preserver and carrier of culture and their emerging new identity in the host culture. Geeta is the only daughter of her parents, their pride and love but the moment she voices her individuality, her family falls apart and she has to leave home. Her choice of a partner not from her community, but a white man, breaks the traditional link that binds her to her community and her family; a dishonour. The other woman immigrant whose plight stands out in the novel is that of Lalita. Married to a man much older to her in age, she is devoid of identity and is merely referred to as Ahuja’s wife. Her interaction with Tilo and the magic of her remedy gives her the strength to fight back her abusive husband and finally flee from the trauma of marital rape and violence. Tilo, is the giver of life and strength to this battered woman. The magic she creates that results in the emergence and assertion of Lalita’s identity are not merely the magic of the spices but her own; it is inherent in her empathy and concern for another human being.

Tilo's fluidity of  identity translates into a fluidity of  identification,  for Tilo's gift is her ability to read into the lives of  all those who enter her store, seeing all of  the problems they endure as they assimilate, feeling their daily sufferings and understanding even their most private thoughts and wishes.  Ironically, she has the deepest vision for the innermost selves of all others, yet is incapable of actually perceiving herself. In fact, Tilo is expressly forbidden to look in a mirror while she lives in Oakland and fulfils her duties as a Mistress of Spices, for "Once a Mistress has taken on her magic Mistress-body, she is never to look on her reflection again." (TMS 61) This strict prohibition of mirrors is a metaphor for Tilo's inability to perceive her self through her own eyes; instead, she formulates her identity upon the vision of others, based upon the differing perceptions of her self as seen by friends, patrons and lovers.

Tilo's female patrons view her as a traditional "older"  South Asian woman, unattractive in her age, sexless in terms of her desires and submissive to the will of others.  Tilo begins to see herself as she believes others do: "a bent woman with skin the color of old sand, behind a glass counter that hold.. .sweets of  their childhoods. Out of their mothers' kitchens." (TMS 5)

Tilo's American lover Raven sees her as a paradigmatic representation of Eastern beauty, an "authentic.. .Real Indian," and since Tilo is estranged from her own self-perceptions, she eventually comes to view herself as Raven's Orientalist fantasy, hyper-sexualized and representative of all that is seen as Indian in American culture." When Tilo perceives herself as Raven's idealized Indian fantasy, she becomes subject to a specific form of racism that gained much attention during the 20th century. "Orientalism,"  Edward Said says, ...  is a style of  thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time)  'the Occident'. .  .Orientalism  can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it..  . Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist.. .makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders  its mysteries plain for and to the West. (2-22)

Tilo’s sensitive heart and a willingness to help others makes Tilo reach out to Lalita, Geeta, Haroun and finally to Raven. Defying all codes of conduct and warnings of the spices and the Old One she embraces the love of Raven in whose quest of identity and struggle she recognizes her own dilemma. Identity for a woman can never be static but bound by her relations, transforming as they transform: she is born as a daughter, grows up to be a wife and ages as the mother. The answer to the crucial question ‘Who am I?’ is not one but manifold and shifting. Tilo heals the people who come to her; she always has a solution for their problems but when it comes to her own life, she is confused and afraid. She is apprehensive of the outcome if she stepped out of the line; the ‘lakshman rekha’ that kept her in ‘place’. The first time she decides to break the code set out for the mistress of the spices, she muses, “Today I plan to stretch my wings, to crack perhaps these shells and emerge into the infinite spaces of the outside world. It frightens me a little. I must admit this.” (TMS 125).

Nayan Tara’s journey reaches its destination in the acceptance of her own desires and dreams; the actual destiny that she was avoiding and hiding away from. The disguise behind which she had so long hidden is torn away by the spices and she is abandoned by them. To be born anew again she is stripped of the identity she had been possessing. She breaks free of all illusions and accepts her new identity, relation and responsibility.

Self-perception is the foundation of identity, but the "self' that emerges from the various self-perceptions is one characterized by multiple selves existing together, conflicting with each other but ultimately, to one degree or another, accepted in their contradictions. Tilo realizes that self-perception is a matter of acknowledging the multiple processes and factors that influence the formation of identity, of embracing each of the contradictory characteristics and consciousnesses as  legitimate identities.

In The Mistress of Spices, the process of  self-perception  is the foundation of identity formation for the central character . As Tilo strives to define herself as South Asian and American, she develops multiple consciousnesses that manifest themselves in both her experiences and her subsequent relationships. While Tilo is living in America, she is incapable of pure self-perception, and can only see herself through the eyes of  those around her, leaving her own self-seeing as a secondary and almost marginal perspective.  Tilo views herself through the lens of her surrounding society, thereby leading to various and often conflicting simultaneous visions of her identity. At first, Tilo allows these perceptions of herself (as created by others) to dominate her thinking, yet as she assimilates herself to American culture and comes to claim her own self-perception. Ironically, however, she finds that she is in fact comprised of the numerous identities that other people had ascribed to her, for the perceptions that others had of her are all legitimate aspects of her identity.  The result of this knowledge is Tilo's recognition of her Multiple consciousnesses, and although this multiplicity is replete with contradictions, Divakaruni nevertheless presents it as a possible "solution" for Tilo's dilemma of cross-cultural identity formation.

Jasbir Jain in the article “Positioning the ‘Post’ in Post – Feminism: Reworking of Strategies” claims that the contemporary era is the era of post-feminism, which is the third stage in the feminist struggle. According to Jain, “It is an attempt to extend the area of women’s roles and of their questioning of relationships in order to drive home the point that the self does not exist in isolation.” (Jain 83). Tilo realizes that; she makes her own choice in life to break free from the things that were holding her back, she chooses her path herself by listening to her heart. However her choice cannot be termed an escape or as a path of self gratification because she also chooses to come back to the city and the people who still need her.

The novel closes with Tilo renaming herself Maya, which  "can mean many things.  Illusion, spell, enchantment, the power that keeps this imperfect world going day after day." (TMS 317)  Tilo chooses a name that "can mean many things,"  a name that embodies the multiplicity  of her identities, the many consciousnesses that lie within her.   Interestingly, "Maya" is also an ancient Sanskrit name, and the juxtaposition  of a name so representative of a cultural past with Tilo's present power suggests that Tilo still lives in between spheres, with contradictory spaces and times comprising the rather ambiguous landscape of her existence.  In naming herself, Tilo reveals that which she is made of: multiple consciousnesses that allow her to exist as not as South Asian or American only, but rather as everything in between, living a life that spans the endless boundaries of space and time and in which identity is filled with the promise of endless possibility and eternal evolution. The real Tilo remains a false image till she realizes her true calling as Maya; a persona in which her ‘self’, the inherent ‘I’ in her identity amalgamates with her other ‘I’s constructed out of her relationship with other people and her love.




Works Cited

Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. The Mistress of Spices. London: Black Swan, 2005.

Jain, Jasbir.  “Positioning the ‘Post’ in Post – Feminism: Reworking of Strategies.” Indian Feminisms. Eds. Jasbir Jain and Avadhesh Kumar Singh. New Delhi: Creative Books, 2001.

Mohanty, Seema. The Book of Kali. New Delhi: Penguin Viking, 2004.

O'Donohue, John. “Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom”

Said, Edward W.  Orientalism. New York: Random House Inc., 1978.