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Immigrant Identity and Acculturation in Divakaruni’s 'The Mistress of Spices'  

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India is a land of culture and superstition. Maintaining the culture is like a prestige for all. Different cultures normally appear to segregate domains whereas in immigrant sensibility the impulse to transgress boundaries and to mingle cultures is inevitable. While the first generation immigrants acculturate, the second generations who are born and brought up in that culture, they easily assimilate. Immigration has already affected many generations and it is clearly shown through some works of writers. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices traces all these transitions of name, character, and personality with great subtlety. Divakaruni shows the life of Indians and their culture through the immigrants. An identity crisis arises when the person struggles to make commitments to achieve ego identity.

Divakaruni’s novel The Mistress of Spices is about the magical realism, Hindu myths and the richness of the Indian Culture. The entire novel is based on the premise that the spices we use every day possess magical powers, which yield themselves in the hands of a trained mistress of spices. India is a land of spices too. In history, Vasco da gama invaded India for spices. Divakaruni chapterised each chapter with a spice name with its own identity- Turmeric, Cinnamon, Fenugreek, Asafoetida, Fennel, Ginger, Peppercorn, Kalo Jire, Neem, Red Chilli, Makaradwaj, Lotus Root, and Sesame and the other two chapters are named Tilo and Maya, the two different identities. Indian spices are represented as a magical being which belongs to India, the multi-cultural nation.

Identity is one of the most common themes in Literature. In this novel, the immigrants (Indian born) leave their own place and take up a new residence (America) with their own culture in another country for their new survival. Every spice has its own identity, like the same way the immigrants are projected in Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices. India is the only multi-cultural nation and the characters’ alienation into cultural acculturation is victimized. India is basically built up by its custom and culture. The conflict between the first and the second generation immigrants is clearly shown through some characters. Indian society is portrayed for its traditional, ethnic, cultural and religious, with contemporary American social problems including interracial tensions, ethnic identity, immigrant assimilation, social emptiness in the lives of the rich Indians.

Tilo, an Indian woman, runs a spice shop in Oakland, California. She uses her power to heal the problems of her multi-ethnic and multi-generational customers through the spices. Tilo, the heroine of this novel, leaves her homeland in the hope of a better life, which is torn between two countries, the host and home, which accordingly undergoes the loss of her forged identity through a mirror. Tilo’s first identity is a small girl Nayan Tara. Her parents are disappointed to see another girl child because of dowry issue. The name, Nayan Tara has three meanings. She is like a flower on the grimmy road. Then she attained the star-seer ability.  The second identity is the pirate queen, Bhagyavathi. After becoming the pirate’s queen, she runs back towards victory. She then calls death because of emptiness in life but she is saved by typhoon. She then hears about the spice island from the sea serpents and then decides to become a mistress of spices, her new identity. She learns about the secret of the spices through the novices. She is now in her new identity as Tilo in California.

Cultural identity refers to a person’s sense of belonging to a particular culture or group. It is about the accepting traditions, heritage, language, religion, ancestry, aesthetics, thinking patterns, and social structures of a culture. A group of people believes the values, norms, and social practices of their culture and identify themselves with that culture. Raven, the hero is tormented between the two cultural identities. Tilo, on seeing him, identifies him as a rich American “Yes, say his eyes, my American letting fall the cloak of his loneliness”(164). Then he tries to confess to Tilo that he is not a white man. Raven then slowly reveals his past to Tilo during their frequent meetings. He divulges to Tilo that his mother was a Native American, but she leaves her family and the state of belonging to live a life of a White woman. Looking at the white folks she disguises her own originality to her own husband and son. Then he is taken to see his great grandfather who is in death bed and there he realizes his own cultural identity. His great grandfather presents him a bird that symbolizes the true identity of Raven.  The conflict between the first and the second generation immigrants is a clear victimization of acculturation or assimilation. Acculturation means the transfer of customs values and culture from one group to another. Geeta’s family is a best example for acculturation or assimilation. She is born in a Bengali Brahmin family and settled in America but she is brought up like an American Child with full freedom.. Geeta’s grandfather grumbles because of her behavior. Geeta openly confesses to her family that she is already in love with an American Juan. “His name is Juan, Juan Cordero” ( 89). And she also claims that she is not fit for arranged marriage. This shows the cultural difference between the two generations.  Jagjit, a Punjabi boy, is also a victim of Cultural identity. Jagjit is a weak boy who feels hard to learn the foreign language, English. The first English word he learns is “IDIOT. IDIOT. IDIOT” (38). He is mocked by the other students in the school because of his inherited identity. The second English word he learns is “Asshole” (38). The main barrier the immigrant faces is the language, adjustment to the new environment, culture based problems.

The next character is a Kashmiri man, Haroun, a taxi driver. He lost his family in a terrorist attack and he enters America illegally to live a peaceful life.

One day the fighting started, and tourists stopped coming. Rebels rode down from mountain passes with machine guns and eyes like black holes in their faces, yes, into the streets of Srinagar, the name which is meaning auspicious city. Toba, toba, where will we go, this is the land of our ancestors. (27)

The immigrant experience is also clearly shown through Lalita, Ahuja’s wife is a selfless individual. She is brought up like a cocoon and she had a disparaging marriage. Lalita is her original name, but after marriage she is called as Ahuja’s wife. Lalita, after getting married comes to America with a new hope in life. Tilo comforts her with a spice and inculcates her dignity and individuality. Lalita learns to survive in the midst of the miseries. Lalita becomes a self-willed woman and strong enough to fight against her husband and her quest for her own identity ends with happiness.

The novel ends with Tilo finding her new existence. She gives herself the name Maya, and transforms to a new identity. Divakaruni portrays the problems faced by the Indian immigrants on the grounds of identity, racism, and acculturation. She mainly shares her views on women searching for her identity. Divakaruni’s characters reflect the predicament of being caught between two conflicting cultures the Indian and the American, two different approaches to life, the internal and the external, and how the immigrants try to assimilate and acculturate with their new identity and the new culture, coping with the new language, culture and environment. 

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Immigrant Identity And Acculturation In Divakaruni’s ‘The Mistress Of Spices’  . (2021, December 16). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 21, 2022, from
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