The story ends on a positive note -- the familiar immigrant tales of dreams, desires, pain, and struggle end with hope. Divakaruni delves a little into the backgrounds of the characters, so they come out as realistic and understandable. For instance, the character of Ahuja's wife, Lalita. We are told of her feeling cheated when the man she weds turns out to be balding and pot-bellied. An unhappy married life follows. She does not want to hurt her parents and jeopardize her younger sisters' marriages by leaving him, so tries to legitimize his abuse and her suffering by blaming her initial unacceptance of him.
Then there is Jagjit, the shy frightened boy transformed to Jag by the endless hostility and abuse he has to bear for his accent and turban. He hits the road with a yearning for the power of the steel blade and gun. But the boy who dreamed of his grandmother's kheti has the desire to start a new life over as he promises Tilo. And Haroun, the cab-driver who fled Dal lake where generations of his family had rowed shikaras for tourists. He lands in America as a illegal immigrant, but he looks forward to riches and happiness in this land.
Not all of the characters are underdogs though. The three generations of the Banerjee family are in a war over their values, only to realise that their love and understanding for each other can overcome every barrier.
And Tilo. The sensitive mistress reaches out and touches the lives of many people at the cost of incurring the spices' wrath. (Funnily, when her concoction of spices does not help, something else does!) She is willing to accept the punishment, but the spices set this compassionate being free so that she can become a mortal woman again.
Unfortunately the book went downhill thereafter. The dire portents all fizzled out -- what happened was far less grim than what one had been led to expect. A second main character appears and he was quite a washout -- unreal, unlikely and unconvincing. I could imagine him comfortably in the pages of a Mills and Boon, with an extra splash of second sight and maybe a third eye. A significant portion of the book is devoted to this guy's story of his past. I don't think I'm giving away any major secrets if I tell you that he is Native American, and I found his history quite inauthentic. (Try Sherman Alexie if you want to read some real writing by and about Native Americans). Divakaruni's portrayal of Native Americans is rather like the way some non-South-Asian authors write about Indian women -- you know, those mysterious-enigmatic-people -with-lots-of-spirituality-and-great-traditions...
The minor characters are all Indian immigrants to the Bay Area, varying from wealthy to struggling. Divakaruni's sympathies are clearly with the struggling group, and their problems are detailed with warmth. I enjoyed the way the different spices came into play -- haldi to help an abused woman, lotus leaf for love -- are these traditional beliefs, or did Divakaruni dream them up? I liked the descriptions of the spices too, though I found their 'speech' very predictable and a bit corny.
Anyway, the last third of the book ties up all the loose ends in nice happy endings. The infamous natural disasters of California obligingly do their bit. I had to chuckle at how conveniently things fell into place for Tilo and the other characters.
In summary, I thought it was an improvement on Arranged Marriage, and the plot was an interesting idea but not well implemented.
Book Description: The novel follows Tilo, a magical figure who runs a grocery store and uses spices to help the customers overcome difficulties. Tilo provides spices, not only for cooking, but also for the homesickness and alienation that the Indian immigrants in her shop experience. In the process, she develops dilemmas of her own when she falls in love with a non-Indian. This creates great conflicts, as she has to choose whether to serve her people or to follow the path leading to her own happiness. Tilo has to decide which parts of her heritage she will keep and which parts she will chose to abandon.
More about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
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