"The Mistress of Spices": Difficulties of Growing Up with Immigrant Parents

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“The Mistress of Spices”: Difficulties of Growing Up With Immigrant Parents

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Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni portrays Manu and Jagjit in The Mistress of Spices to present this instance. Manu, a seventeen-year-old boy follows the American ways of life and indulges in drinking whisky and beer and going to prom to dance with cheap girls of America, which puts their parents in fear. Jagjit’s behavior completely changed in the process of assimilation. He is prone to delivering drugs. Felicita Mary Prabha cites Jhumpa Lahiri’s words on the difference found between the first and the second generation of immigrants in accepting and assimilating to the foreign culture. She views:

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For immigrants, the challenges of exile, the loneliness, the constant sense of alienation, and the knowledge of and longing for a lost world, are more explicit and distressing than for their children. On the other hand, the problem for the children of immigrants, those with strong ties to the country of origin, is that they feel neither one thing nor the other. The feeling that there was no place to which I fully belonged bothered me growing up. Adults that are immigrants and children, who grow up with immigrant parents face many difficulties and unusual things along the way.

The first-generation immigrants are always rooted in their ethnic culture completely whereas the second-generation immigrants living with their American identity are searching for their cultural roots throughout their life. Tilo, Geeta's family, Mr. and Mrs. Gupta, Jaspal, and Tara are continuously searching for their ancestral roots. Second-generation immigrants always try to put together their fragmented selves to construct their own identity for themselves. The situation of the second generation is beautifully presented by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in introducing Geeta’s character. She writes, “Geeta who is India and America all mixed into new melody, be forgiving of an old man who holds on to his past with all the strength in his failing”.

The first-generation immigrants protect the second-generation immigrants from feeling like an outsider in America they themselves make their children feel like an outsider to their own cultural heritage. In Queen of Dreams, Rakhi says 'I hungered for all things Indian because my mother never spoke of the country she'd grown up in – just as she never spoke of her past. The yearning for a homeland creates a vacuum in their heart and makes them feel incomplete. Chitra Banerjee has very well brought out this condition through the character sketches of Tara and Rakhi. The pain of emptiness makes Tara suffer out of kleptomania.

Kleptomania is an inability to control the urge to steal. Anxiety, tension, low self-esteem, peer pressure, and jealousy are said to be the important cause of kleptomania. Kleptomaniac people do not steal for personal or economic gain. Tara being suffered by all these things has occurred with the habit of stealing to find fulfillment. Even after knowing it won’t bring back what she deserves. Tara says:

I take things that I should have had but didn’t get. Things that mean happy memories. Things that stand for love and commitment. But sometimes I steal things that mean nothing. I steal them because there’s a big hole in the middle of my chest and stealing fills it up for a moment. (204)

She longs to know about her origin and wants to get in touch with her grandmother who lived in India. But Bela had hidden all these things from Tara due to her personal problems which make Tara feel like a deficient one. She attains fullness only after finding her grandmother’s letter from India. After finding those letters she tells The story I’m longing to read, but there is something I must do first. The universe has given me an undreamed- gift. I must reciprocate it…Dr. Berger, it’s the first time in my life that I’m returning hat I have stolen” (BWVTG 202). Likewise, Rakhi throughout her life yearns to know about India. Her yearning makes her a painter. She always paints India as she has in her imagination. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes, “Until now, most of her paintings had been about India – an imagined India, an India researched from photographs, because she’d never traveled there” (QD 10). Like letters for Tara which gives her a sense of relief Rakhi’s mother’s dream journals (Mrs. Gupta’s diary) gives relief to Rakhi. She tried several times to go to India but her fear of facing the reality forces her to put off the visit. This fear can be witnessed in Tara too. When she says, “ She wrote to me twice after she went back to India, lovely, meandering, melancholy letters in which she invited me to come and live with her. I reread the letters thirsty and thought about it. But I didn’t have the courage”(BWVTG 201). They represent every immigrant woman who is living abroad but aspires to find her roots in India.

Every immigrant is being treated as an outsider in America, no matter how many years he/she is living there. Belle's real name is BalwantKaur. She is the co-owner of the Kurma House in the novel Queen of Dreams. Though she belongs to a traditional Indian Sikh family being and was brought up in America, Belle has molded herself to fit into western style and culture But immigrant parents being the first generation immigrants want to keep a close attachment between India and their daughter. They want her to learn their mother tongue. They want her to learn either Hindi or Punjabi. This resembles a typical parenting style of Indian parents living abroad, who want to keep their children connected to their homeland and its culture. However, Belle herself deliberately stays away from Punjabi language and culture. This shows that whether parents try to avoid or transmit the Indian culture to their children it would create troubles for both of them.

The first-generation immigrants want their children to be the child of their native. But the children of the second-generation immigrants want to become Americanized as they were used to the American culture. They often try to merge with the American lifestyle. But it does not mean the complete denial of their native. Even though they want to identify themselves as American they have fascination and love for their native. Especially the second-generation immigrants unknowingly inherit their native traits. In India children calling their father by their names is considered a disrespectful thing. In Queen of Dreams, Rakhi did not like her daughter calling her father by his name Sonny, she calls it nonsense. The second-generation immigrants strictly stick on to their native practices on some matters although they want to be an American all the time.

Second-generation immigrants are usually portrayed as rebellious ones. Geeta in The Mistress of Spices, Rakhi in Queen of Dreams seems to be rebellious. They struggle a lot in fixing the problems both in the family and in society. Felicita Mary Prabha brings the difference between the first and second-generation immigrants’ attitudes through the ideas of Sunaina Maira and Rajini Srikanth. She quotes:

Second-generation South Asians, having come of age in a post-civil rights era, often refuses to be treated as Other by mainstream culture; at the same time many question the uncritical acceptance of the need for assimilation. The resulting 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. (Praba 45)

The mother-daughter relationship that exists between the first-generation immigrant mother and her second-generation immigrant daughter is a complex one. The mother characters and the daughter characters are seen in all the three novels have misunderstandings among themselves. It is reflected between First mother and Tilo, Mrs. Gupta and Rakhi, and Bela and Tara. Divakaruni has vividly portrayed the conservative, the orthodox, and the traditional first-generation immigrant mothers as well as the mothers who assimilate the host culture. Mothers who have a strong belief in practicing their native customs and traditions expect their daughters to follow the same. 'The second-generation immigrants and the diasporic writers for whom the homeland exists as a myth or collective memory is displaced by such an assimilative acceptance of hybridity and multilocationality' says GurdevMeher. (Meher 68)

The second-generation immigrants adapt to the new culture but their family members, even though they are also immigrants, could not fit in themselves to the foreign culture. In The Mistress of Spices, Geeta's character is the best example. Geeta has cut her hair short like an American lady but it is not accepted by her grandfather. He wants her to live like an Indian because he thinks even though they live in America he wants her to live like an Indian. He says:

That Geeta, how much makeup she is using all the time. If, in my days only the Englishwomen and prostitutes are doing that. Good Indian girls are not ashamed of the face God is giving them. You can't think what all she is taking with her even to work.

Even if the second-generation immigrants have completely accommodated American life, Americans do not consider them their country people. When they come to face the harsh reality although they are born and brought up in America they are not American. It makes them feel like fish out of water. In Before We Visit the Goddess, Tara was hired by her manager as a car driver for the Indian tourist Mr. Venkatachalapthi as she was an Indian. In that situation they utter, “I wanted to tell her, no, I wouldn't. I was certain this person – whoever he might be – was nothing like me. I'd never been to India, I didn't hang with Indians, I didn't think of myself as Indian. And even if I had, no two Indians were just like each other. (BWVTG 120). The second-generation immigrants were also neglected by the people of their origin. When Tara went to the temple with Dr. Venkatachalapthi, a priest from India sees her like 'You can't fool me. You don't belong here” (BWVTG 123). The word ‘here' refers to India. The reason for this entire dilemma of the second-generation immigrants is due to their uprootedness. They can neither be completely American nor be a complete Indian. This sort of incompleteness put them in the ultimate dilemma.

Once the second-generation immigrants come to feel the otherness from the society in which they live and from the land to which they belong they start to realize their trishanku state i.e. their betweenness. Chitra Banerjee had brought out the unpredictable danger which keeps on following them due to their skin color and ethnic appearances. Jaspal, an Indian Sikh boy who resides in America prefers to stay traditional. But his very traditional ‘Sikh’ appearance makes him look like a terrorist, which has led him to danger. Due to this, many Indian boys neglect their traditional looks. Jaspal says, “I wonder at the turban so many young Sikhs have chosen to dispense with it. It suits him, though, gives him a rugged, adventurous look”. Jagjit, another Sikh boy character in The Mistress of Spices also has undergone a similar humiliation in his school. “In the playground, they try to pull it off his head, green turban the color of a parrot’s breast. They dangle the cloth from their fingertips and laugh at his long, uncut hair. And push him down”( Mistress of Spices 38). While undergoing these humiliations from natives they are further tortured by the first-generation immigrants.

Most first-generation immigrants cannot understand the plights of second-generation immigrants. Jagjit’s mother is the best example of these sorts of first-generation immigrants. As Jagtit was humiliated by the natives he returns home with a shabby appearance with torn shirts, muddy clothes. She scolds him instead of understanding him. Felicita Mary Praba describes that the first-generation immigrants concentrate only on their work as they know that they are already aware of the fact they won’t be counted as a part of native people. But the second-generation immigrants who have grown among the natives of the host land from their childhood perceive that they belong to the place where they had been despite the differences in skin, behavior, culture, and attitude. But the unpleasant experiences that they undergo confirm that they are outsiders.

Most second-generation immigrants do not have a pleasant relationship with their families. Their familial relationships are filled with misunderstandings and breakups. Unsecured feelings have filled their mind. Geeta, Rakhi, Belle, and Tara are the prototype of this condition. Rakhi does not have a satisfactory relationship with her immigrant parents even though they have love towards one another; a huge communication gap exists among them. She is confident enough to live her life alone and on her own terms without any dependence. She breaks her marital bond and moves ahead in life. However, she cannot completely detach herself from her husband even after the divorce because of their mutual interest in their daughter Jona, who still loves and likes the company of her father. Sometimes Rakhi longs for manly love and care. “Divorce affects Rakhi economically and emotionally. However, she overcomes this loss with time but initially; it also brings a crisis in her identity. Belle in Queen of Dreams also has problems in being in a relationship with her family. It is witnessed in the following passage that reads:

Rakhi accepts Belle’s wildness, the way she’s often restless, as though something’s gnawing at her insides. The way she moves from her boyfriend, never letting them become important. Her constant fights with her immigrant parents, good country folk bewildered by their hummingbird daughter who refuses to let them pull her back into their safe Sikh nest.

Marriage is another thing that causes conflict between two different generations of immigrants. In India, marriages are different from the marriages that happen in the rest of the world. Chetan Bhagat has comically portrayed it through the passage in his novel the Two States; Story of My Marriage. He points out:

Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. They get married. In India, there are a few more steps: Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. The girl’s family has to love the boy. The boy’s family has to love the girl. Girl’s family has to love boy’s family. Boy’s family has to love girl’s family. Girl and boy still love each other. They get married. (Two states Cover)

The first-generation immigrants give freedom to their children and they expect their children to obey their decision in marriage. They usually want their children to marry an Indian immigrant settled in America. Geeta in The Mistress of Spices, and Rakhi in Queen of Dreams had undergone this situation. Rakhi marries Sonny opted by her mother. Geeta in The Mistress of Spices was born and brought up in America. Her family members belong to three generations of Indian immigrants. There arise huge gaps between the psyches of all of them. Her grandfather knows only about India. He adopts the Indian way of life and he always wants them to identify themselves as Indians. He says, “Arre baap, so what if this is America, we are Bengalis, no?”.

Geeta’s father is in a dilemma whether to practice Indian tradition or to accept the American way of life. Geeta’s immigrant parents were not hurried to arrange a marriage for Geeta. But her grandfather wants to marry her to an Indian boy as early as possible. Geeta who is used to the American way of life is in love with the Chicano boy. She refuses to marry the boy her family chooses for her. She openly talked about her wish to marry him to his family. The family’s reaction to her proposal expresses the cultural conflict that exists within the immigrant’s home. She narrates:

The look on Ramu’s face is not so happy and Sheela's eyebrows are starting to squeeze together…chee chee, no shame at all, making talk of love in front of her parents, in front of me, her grandfather…when she (Geeta) explain I tell to her, you are losing your caste and putting blackest kali on our ancestors’ faces to marry a man who is not even sahib…Sheela is crying wringing her hands, saying I never thought you’d this is to us for giving you so much freedom even though all our relatives warned us. But Ramu is sitting totally quiet.

Works cited

  1. Divakaruni, C. B. (1997). The Mistress of Spices. Doubleday.
  2. Lahiri, J. (2000). Interpreter of Maladies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  3. Prabha, F. M. (2014). Diaspora, Identity, and Belonging: Exploring Second-Generation Immigrants in Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices, and Anita Rau Badami's Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (Doctoral dissertation, Mahatma Gandhi University).
  4. Maira, S., & Srikanth, R. (Eds.). (2018). Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North America. Asian American Writers' Workshop.
  5. Meher, G. (2011). The Concept of Diaspora in the Novels of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Journal of the Research Scholar, 5(2), 66-73.
  6. Bhagat, C. (2009). Two States: The Story of My Marriage. Rupa Publications.
  7. Chaudhuri, U. (2002). A Passage to America: The Literary Identity of South Asian Women in the United States. Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Gupta, A. (2006). Diasporic subjectivities: An interpretation of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices. Journal of Indian Writing in English, 34(1), 11-16.
  9. Johri, R. (2017). Gender and Cultural Identity in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Mistress of Spices and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Journal of Literature, Languages and Linguistics, 28, 52-62.
  10. Praba, F. M. (2016). The Displaced Self: A Study of Second-Generation Immigrant Experience in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices and Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines. Social Science Research Network.

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