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Creation and Criticism

ISSN: 2455-9687  

(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal

Devoted to English Language and Literature)

Vol. 08, Joint Issue 28 & 29: Jan-April 2023

Research Paper

Dislocating the Consciousness and Encountering of

Migration in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s

The Mistress of Spices

U. Abishek

ORCID: 0009-0003-5186-1505



Diaspora studies capture the apprehensions, anxiety and concerns of the people thereby trying to analyze the depth of dilemma and problem of predicament. It works as a channel to strengthen the ties by serving as an outlet to the pent up emotions and feelings Diasporic literature is mainly an output generating from a unique feeling emanating in the minds of people who go through an avalanche of anguishes and emotions while taking efforts to acclimatize to new cultural environment. However, the literature is not just subjected to discussions of identity and subjectivity. Divakaruni's novels manifest migration, mobility and diaspora in its varied forms. She has depicted the bond of friendship which the fellow migrants develop. People in the diaspora by reliving and recreating their past adhere to their value system but are also able to restructure their life in the given environment either through memories acting as positive stimulant or serving to present a contrast between the past and the present.


Keywords: Migration, diaspora, displacement, self-definition, self-identity, new-woman.

Diaspora literature explores the basic questions of identity, home, memory, space, nation, belongingness, assimilation, acculturation and transmutation. The feelings of confusion, mystification, uncertainty, perplexity are the central objects of study and subjects of writings. It reflects an awareness of being different from the majority mainly because of one’s own perception and because of the outside world. Diaspora as a subject of literary or cultural study has had a long history with many metamorphic manifestations. The constant changes within and outside it, due to forces such as globalisation, liberalisation, global economic interdependence, cultural interpellation, transnationalism, etc., have forced readers and scholars to re-read it as a radically different domain of academic research. Its evolution since the time of the Biblical exodus through the pre-colonial period, the post-slavery era, postcolonial period till our contemporary era of transnational has compelled scholars to look into it both synchronically (as an event in history) and diachronically (as it has been evolving through different stages of history so far). Its epistemic denominations and chameleon like manifestations have necessitated considering it as unavoidable theory and praxis of modern human experiences. The post-1990s witnessed an increasing importance in Diaspora studies, and theorists of Post-Colonialism, Cultural Studies, Cultural Theory, Anthropology, Sociology, Economics, etc., increasingly contributed to this new field of study variedly and vigorously.


Consequent upon this ever metamorphic nature of diaspora and diasporic experiences, prominent theorists and critics in the field of diaspora have conceptualized diaspora in different times and from different perspectives. For example, critics like Stuart Hall talks about "cultural identity' which suggests about the similarities and the differences amongst imagined cultural groups (Cultural Identity); Robin Cohen opines that diaspora are positioned somewhere between nation-states and “travelling cultures”, denoting that they involve dwelling in a nation- state in a physical sense, but travelling in an astral or spiritual sense that falls outside the nation-state's space/time zone (Global Diaspora). Homi Bhabha insists on the legitimisation of the transnational subjectivity of diaspora in contemporary cultural production and popularised the term ‘Hybridity’ in the discourse of diaspora (LC), Vijay Mishra talks about the melancholy of the diaspora, in Freudian terms, as a wound that is never healed and called it the diasporic Imaginary (Diasporic Imaginary), while ‘diaspora’, for Arjun Appadurai, is a key to grasping how this new world-order takes shape and how it would operate, and comprehensively talks about this in popular five scapes-ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes (Disjuncture and Difference).


The prominent critic and writer Salman Rushdie has deliberately used Benedict Anderson's Imaginary Communities to describe “Imaginary Homelands” (Imaginary Communities: Imaginary Homelands). Although all these critics form different perspectives of diaspora in consideration here, they all unite in some particular streams of thought, i.e. experiences of migration, host land hurdles, memory, cultural challenges, existential crises of varied other natures such as that of caste, class, sexuality, citizenship, religious adherence, etc. to name a few.


Similarly, there have been significant contributions by the Indian diasporic writer into the different genres of diaspora studies. They have been enriching the subject and themes through their writings. This body of literature encompasses fiction, drama, poetry, essays etc. Even literary theories are being developed in this field. We can, therefore, no more avoid the polyphonic voices and heteroglossic representations of diasporic society by different creative writers of the Indian diaspora. Homi K. Bhabha points out these disjunctures or intersections of voices and meanings in a diapsoric zone. In his ‘Introduction’ to Nation and Narration , Bhabha points out the pattern of discriminations and discrepancies meted out to these populations on the facade of national interest:

The marginal of minority is not the space of a celebrator, or utopian self marginalization. It is a much more substantial intervention into those justification of modernity- progress, homogeneity, cultural organicism, the deep nation, the long past-that rationalize the authoritarian ‘normalising’ tendencies within cultures in the name of the national interest or the ethnic prerogative. (Bhabha, 139)


The sense of alienation, separation, distancing, and emotions of anger, confusion, humiliation and fear gets converted into a stream of words. Suppressed distress & anguish brought about by the change in environment creates a distinct and unique sensitivity which gets translated in the writings. ‘Acute Perception and responsiveness’ which characterizes sensibility and is marked with heightened emotional expectancy found a projection in the writings of the diaspora, by the diaspora and about the diaspora. Diaspora studies capture the apprehensions, anxiety and concerns of the people thereby trying to analyze the depth of dilemma and problem of predicament. The problematic puzzled affairs of the mind, the enchanted and captivated generational differences came to the fore reflecting the entire system of growth and realization.


Diasporic Indian writing is a forum for illuminating the emotional and psychic consequences of immigrant experience and it is also a search for self-definition and self-identity. Through an intensive study of diasporic literature one is able to re-discover the commonalities when looked at from a distance. It works as a channel to strengthen the ties by serving as an outlet to the pent up emotions and feelings. Indian diasporic writers have tried to re-invent their birth place by casting the rhythms of ancient legends and exposing the cadences of mythology along with cultural assimilation and nostalgia.


This paper explores the representation of diasporic identity in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's fictional work The Mistress of Spices from the critical aspect of Indian Diaspora. It is argued that moving beyond its preoccupation with the poetics and politics of colonialism, postcolonial literature is making forays into diasporic dynamism to the extent that contemporary fiction within its ambit can be seen as literature of diaspora to a great extent. In fact, the literary texts directly or indirectly related to the erstwhile colonies now hardly project colonial resistance as a major concern. They rather choose to focus more or less exclusively on transnational, diasporic or postnational concerns and identities. The concern with identity politics is dominant in these literary texts against the backdrop of cross cultural, inter-racial, multi-ethnic and transnational communication and interaction. The communication and interactions are mainly the outcomes of an individual or community's journey, movement and migration from one locale to another. The movements and migrations make an individual experience multiple issues related to their itinerary, dispersion, settlement and adjustment. Interestingly, the issues related to movement and dispersion are generally addressed by the diasporic writers who live beyond national boundaries and represent in their literary works the anxieties and aspirations of diasporic existence.


While the traditional notion of identity relies on the concept of sameness and oneness in the context of diasporic identity, this notion of sameness has come under severe strain. That the changes and transformations taking place in individual and social lives are important constituents of one's identity is a well accepted argument in contemporary critical parlance. For a person living in diaspora, the changes taking place at various levels. The Mistress of Spices, the first novel of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni appeared on the scene way back in 1997. This novel basically delineates the life of the protagonist Tilo as she looks into the past with nostalgia Le, her birth and the story which finally made her the mistress of spices. Her present story revolves around a spice shop which she set a year ago and the setting is Oakland, a city by the Bay area in US.


The story begins with the first person narrative. This novel is a perfect blend of the real and the surreal. She is born with a power to foresee the truth and because of it she is abducted by the pirates with whom she stays as their queen for almost three years and when a typhoon hits the sea, she is saved by the sea-serpents and brought to an island where the Old one - First Mother trains her to master the spices and takes an oath from her that she would never love anyone nor see the mirror. The Old one names her Tillotama. After her training, she has to dive into the fire of Shampati and select the place of her choice to practice her skills and she selects Oakland. With the special power to heal people through spices, she runs the Spice store. She not just sells things but also heals people, listens to their problems and provides them solace. Her store is frequented by Lalita, Ahuja's wife who is a victim of domestic violence, Jagjit, a young boy, who comes with his mother from Jullunder and who misses country, from Kashmir, a victim of terrorism, bougainvillea girls, Geeta's grandfather and even Raven with whom she falls in love which is forbidden to her. Most of the visitors are Indian immigrants but Raven is not an Indian. Still, she helps him and gradually she starts falling for him. She comes to know of the past of Raven and the truth about his identity that he is not a white Native American as he is supposed to be. In the end the area is hit by an earthquake and Raven saves her and names her Maya. The novel ends with Tilo making a choice towards her love and thereby forsaking her power over spices.


Negotiating cultural identity and living the lives of hyphenated subjects are the primary focus of argument in Divakaruni’s famous novels The Mistress of Spices and Queen of Dreams. In both the novels, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's focus is on the central characters" migration to the United States of America, their struggle for adjustment with the new cultural ways and negotiation with the Indian and American identity. In this process of negotiation, the hyphenated identity of an Indian-American is created and appropriated. The hybridization of culture and identity find an intentional place in Divakaruni's writings. She writes in her blog that Tilo is a first generation immigrant in The Mistress of Spices is the character who is borne out of the negotiation between their culture of ancestry and culture of adoption.


In The Mistress of Spices, the idea of home occupies a significant space. Tilo’s home is her spice shop. She had to part with her homeland but she resolves not to leave her metaphoric home - the spice store. Taking cue from Robin Cohen, home can be interpreted as the “place of origin or the place of settlement, or a local, national or a transnational place, or an imagined virtual community” (10). The place of origin is the Nation state and the place of settlement can refer to the adopted nation. The virtual community may refer to the space provided by internet intensifying global communication and bringing the home even in the social medias. Home can now be perceived in skype or video calling. But such types of virtual space hardly can provide the true essence offered by a real home. The soil, the smell, the intimacy of home can perhaps be more emotionally felt in the real home, not the virtual one. The emotions attached with home are explained by Avtar Brah in her book Cartographies of Diaspora. Furthermore she states:

Where is home? On the one hand, 'home' is a mythic place of desire in the diasporic imagination. In this sense it is a place of no return, even if it is possible to visit the geographical territory that is seen as the place of “origin”. On the other hand, home is also the lived experience of a locality. Its sounds and smells, its heat and dust, balmy summer evenings, or the excitement of the first snowfall, shivering winter evenings, somber grey skies in the middle of the day.... all these, as mediated by historically specific everyday of socially relations. (Brah, 192)


The associations made with one's home are made up of simple yet spatial images and special feeling. The desire for the home is a working of "diasporic imagination" (Brah 192) and this desire is connected to pining and yearning for the loss of a homeland. A yarning for the homeland makes it complex for the immigrants to cope with the new cultural aesthetics of the host land which in turn leaves its influence on their identity construction. The home that the novel speaks of is India to which the protagonist Tilo and the major immigrant characters belong and which the author tries to relocate in the continent of America amidst various experiences.


A diasporic person moves and shifts from one cultural locale to another Their feeling of dispersion and displacement is intensified with the interplay of memory and desire - memory of the lost homeland and desire for being accepted and for finding a new identity in the newly settled land. In fact, “homeland is imbued with the expressive charge and a sentimental pathos that seem to be almost universal” (Cohen 103). This emotional dimension attached with the homeland seems to be well exposed by Divakaruni in The Mistress of Spices. The homeland is perceived as the “cultural hearth” (Conner 17) which the immigrants tend to relocate. Tilo's empathy for the fellow Indians living in America reflects her indelible emotional attachment with the homeland effectively.


Being abducted by the pirates from her village and subsequently from her motherland, Tilo lands in an island after emancipating herself from the domineering clutches of the pirates. She excels in the magical use of the spices of her motherland under the guidance of the Old Mother for helping distressed people and thus qualifies as the mistress of spices. From a critical perspective, the pirates can be equated with the colonizers who plundered India and Indian wealth during the time of colonization. Tilo's act of defeating the power and dominance of the pirates may suggest the much aspired freedom of the colonized from the colonizers. She does not only defeat the rivals but masters the art of command and leadership. She makes her own choices. After her training as a mistress of spices, Tilo chooses to come to Oakland in America as she says: “Even before she spoke I knew its name, Oakland, the other city by the Bay. Mine” (55). The Old Mother, however, predicts that in the new place Tilo's life will be changed forever. She urges Tilo to change her decision but in vain: “O Tilo,... I must give you what you ask for, but consider, consider. Better you should choose an Indian settlement, an African market town. Any other place in the world, Qatar Paris Sydney Kingston Town Chaguanas” (55). However, In the course of the novel, it is established that the Mother's doubt was not without valid reason.


Tilo owns a spice store in Oakland which provides its customers not only with the common as well as the rare Indian spices but the spices endowed with the magical powers of their mistress also heal them from all the sufferings they are undergoing in the new land. The spice shop, as if, works as the miniature of Indians Tilo comes in contact with in the hostland, are of varied nature but their attitude to get assimilated remains almost the same. One of the most significant aspects that Divakaruni puts forward in this text is projecting Tilo as the mistress -she is the mistress of Spices. In Rajan's vision, by making Tilo the mistress of the spice shop Divakaruni has reversed the metaphoric trade of spices by the colonizers. “What was once the colonial spice rout from west to east (with all the attendant orientalism), now reversed, is the re-entry path for Tilo, the postnational spice mistress” (221). The spice shop on the other hand, serves as Tilo's home. She, as if, carries her home with herself and stays in its protective shelter day and night.


Though she is permitted to use her healing magical powers only on the people of her own community and culture, Tilo transgresses her limit and falls in love with Raven, a Native American in search of spiritual solace. He feels to be betrayed by his mother as she concealed from him her true identity as a Native American. Tilo starts sympathizing with his troubles and taking pleasure in his company. She willingly steps in Shampati’s fire to transform her bodily features from an old lady to a young and beautiful one. She even gets ready to leave behind the identity of a mistress in order to feel the carnal pleasure with her American. However, her decision to leave a host of people in their own conditions and start a new life in a new world with her lover is shattered as the calamity of earthquake gives her the realisation that her people need her and she cannot leave them for an American. But Raven respects Tilo's decision as each of them loves the exotic image of the other. At last, there becomes a synthesis of the East and the West in the union between Tilo and Raven and Tilo gets him as a New, Free Woman in the end.


Divakaruni's novels manifest migration, mobility and diaspora in its varied forms. The reason for setting abroad also varies. It delves into the difficulties inherent in adjusting to a new land but it also creates a perception of the land left behind in all its neutrality. The characters engage themselves in an active process of remembering. Tilo, the mistress of spices, chooses America and voluntarily helps the people open up their treasured thoughts and tries to heal them. Spice shop, for instance, created in The Mistress of Spices as a setting serves to bring the displaced people together and tries to offer them solace. Divakaruni has depicted the bond of friendship which the fellow migrants develop. Tilo in The Mistress of Spices personifies the experience of immigrants as she balances two cultures opposed worlds of India and America as well as the real and the magical. Tilo, the mistress of spices, herself looks like a memory, a tradition personified. She is portrayed as :

An old, bent woman, with skin the color of sand, wearing a simple sari'. They see me standing behind a glass counter that contains Indian sweets. And all the goods in the store remind my customers of India-the land most of them left behind when they came to America. (Divakaruni, 20)


The way they share their secrets, tragedies and concerns with an old lady Tilo and open their hearts, show their longing to be heard and their deep seated thoughts which they feel cannot be understood by the people of that land. Massey's views on place become quite relevant here, as he points towards a new sense of place which is extroverted, which includes a consciousness of its links with the wider world, which integrates in a positive way the global and the local. Tilo understands the power of spices not just Indian but even American. However, she remembers the spices of her own land with keen enthusiasm as she states: the spices of true power are from my birth land, land of ardent poetry, aquamarine feathers. Sunset skies brilliant as blood.


The spice shop though within the confines of boundaries lends an open site for discussion, exploration and understanding of issues plaguing the world at large. Her store becomes a symbol of life and the spices a slice of experience, sometimes red hot like chilly and sometimes healing like turmeric. The author has projected The Spice Shop, which seems to be an extension of Tilo's body and her sense of self. The store has two rooms-outer room and the inner room and it is like the life of expatriates who live a masked life outside and within their being lies the internal consciousness which is different from what is projected.


The Mistress of Spices picturizes the story of many Indians who live as immigrants in the US but jostle with their inner voice to whole heartedly accept the new land. It is the main character Tilo tells that the new land America, this city which prides itself on being no older than a heartbeat. it is the same things we want, again and again. Youth. teenagers, adults and oldies all are brought together on one platform that has their own shades of anxieties, tension, apprehensions and concerns. The resolution to adjust and accommodate can be seen but beneath it lurks a hidden desire which they find it difficult to comprehend. To simplify, The Spice shop is the space, which becomes a public space where the Indian diasporic group identity can be articulated and actively lived in all its diversity Kolekar and Annie in their paper on Indian Diaspora have mentioned.


Diaspora is a scattering of the seed in the wind, the fruits of which are a new creation and a fight to survive. Every diasporic movement holds a historical significance, as it comes with the kernel of the nation's history. The dilemma of the people who migrate is this that though they change their place but the heart remains in the things of the past. The store where the entire community tends to relive their experiences caters to the small little cravings of Indian community. Be it the Indian sweets or various kinds of pulses, video tapes, music cassettes the visitors' choice in buying the retail products point at the sense of nostalgia and longing. The things help in mediating, enacting and circulating the culture in motion.


It is significantly important to see how Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has united people from different places of India which is diverse and placed them against the diversity on a global scale with memories looming in their heart. Memory, according to Le Goff, refers to the capacity of conserving certain information or a group of psychic functions that allow us to actualize past impressions or information that we represent to ourselves as past. Here diaspora does not merely remain singular in being. Evolution becomes fluid as the characters embrace and integrate differences and disjuncture.


Even as Indians they have differences be it the difference in custom, caste, class or region but in America they are transgressing the borders and also the differences. Haroun is from Kashmir, Geeta's grandfather from Jamshedpur, Jagjit from Jullundher, and Lalitha from Kanpur but in America they form a sort of unified community which cherishes the land of the past. Tilo herself has mentioned that in her store on Saturday, -All those voices, Hindi, Oriya, Assamese, Urdu, Tamil, English, layered one on the other like notes from a tanpura... reverberated. The perceptions related to the diversified Indians vary and the same happens in USA as well. Though in Oakland, US, the name of her store is Indian-Spice Bazar' where discolored pictures of the Gods and plastic green mango leaves have been strung over the door for luck.


Even if the place changes the thoughts lie in the past and the memory of it brings back the reality. Walsh has analyzed the role of belongings in belonging and according to him it has the potential to construct trans-local domestic environment. Decorative art pieces, craft objects become a source of treasure that helps in enacting past residences and reforms the present landscape. Many immigrants try to stick to their past life by clinging to the things which belong to their country and by following an age-old routine of customs and superstitions. N. Jayaram, a sociologist, has talked about the socio-cultural baggage which the people tend to carry with them when they migrate and find in their culture a defense mechanism against a sense of insecurity in the settings, because of which they try to cling on to the things related to their home and nation. Literature in her case tends to memorialize the experiences of diaspora. The tastes, smells and sounds tend to re-make India’s spectral presence. Divakaruni seems to suggest, an individual should be able to throw that trans-cultural switch, as it were, in one’s mind on a private and personal level before one can actually implement one’s chosen trans cultural strategies in the public spaces of the new host society. People living in diaspora have to cross various hurdles and they make an effort to adjust and accommodate with the linguistic, cultural, racial and national differences. The writer in her novel has compared their life to the bitter slight aftertaste in the mouth when one has chewed amla or gooseberry to freshen the breath. In her novels, we find a form of diaspora that pays the price of getting displaced but since it is a conscious decision, they reconcile with this fact. Her novels echo the view point that the notions of displacement and diaspora are, then, in a dialogic relationship with each other. While the idea of displacement suggests the loss of familiar space and emphasizes the need to transform, the notion of diaspora emphasizes the connections between the displaced.


People in the diaspora by reliving and recreating their past adhere to their value system but are also able to restructure their life in the given environment either through memories acting as positive stimulant or serving to present a contrast between the past and the present. The novels effectively revisit the country of birth and Divakaruni throws light on the Indian society, customs and traditions. It helps in rethinking and elaborately pictures the formation of identity against the background of cultural differences which is attuned to the asymmetrical international exchanges. The novel undermines the subtleties and complications that mark the journey of life and the way a person evolves and transforms through the change happening not just at the geographical level but even at the emotional and psychic level.


Displacement, thus, in Divakaruni's novels resulting due to migration, immigration, travel exile offers possibility of providing positive spaces of assimilation. Even, the isolation of the character Tilo, clearly reflects the sense of separation from the roots in the novel, which is an integral part of Diasporic studies. It largely offers a chance for development and cross-cultural dialogues resulting both in alienation and assimilation. Diaspora thus experiences various kinds of displacement but it is their inner consciousness which makes them adjust, accommodate and even adapt. Desperateness, conflicts, worries, doubts, suspicions characterize the people who relocate to new places but their struggles in Divakaruni's novels are evidences of chronicles of time and contribute towards betterment of self-perception in relation to past and memories.


Works Cited:


Bhabha, H. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.


Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. Routledge, 1996.


Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Routledge, 1997.


Divakaruni, Chitra. The Mistress of Spices. Macmillan, 2005.


Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory, translated by Steven Randall and Elizabeh Claman. Columbia Press, 1992.


About the Author:


Mr. U. Abishek, NET in English, is an independent scholar. He completed his master’s degree at Thiagarajar College, Madurai. His interest area entails Queer Studies, Post-humanism, and Digital Humanities. He can be contacted at


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