Review: The characters in Rheaa Mukherjee’s ‘The Body Myth’ are too real for a world that prefers masks

Urmi Chanda-Vaz | Updated on August 23, 2019 Published on August 23, 2019

Politics of selfhood: Within the confines of the body lie incomprehensible constructs such as the mind, real or imagined ailments and symptoms of painful pasts   -  ISTOCK.COM

Rheaa Mukherjee moves nimbly through tricky territories of disengaged parents, problematic relationships, half-truths and dark pasts

In what could be called a suicidal move, some books implore you, compel you to judge them by their covers, and risk losing a potential reader to a bad aesthetic. And we all know that unless a book comes with the muscle of author reputation, a prestigious literary award, or its own success in the previous editions, it is a hard thing to sell. So the story, the title, the cover designer’s vision, press and marketing, and serendipity must combine to make a reader pick up a new book.

Bengaluru-based author Rheea Mukherjee’s debut novel, The Body Myth gets all the yardsticks right. The title is both mysterious and universal, and intends to arouse the curiosity of all kinds of readers. Who can resist the challenge of someone calling the first and last bastions of our identity — the body — a myth?

The Body Myth; Rheea Mukherjee; Fiction; Penguin/ Hamish Hamilton; ₹499


But it is artist Ahlawat Gunjan’s cover design that really seals the deal — a striking collage of a woman’s hollowed-out face with a plant growing out of it, and a red asterisk. A few holes cut into the dust jacket reveal the orange hardback insides. Like secret keyholes. They get right at your voyeur instinct; you want to urgently see the mysterious and mythical bodies living in Mukherjee’s universe.

In her fictional small Indian town grows a fictional fruit that becomes a symbol for all things unusual thriving in its fictional soil. The rasagura fruit of Suryam is “like a soaked berry, bursting with the tang of a lemon, with texture of pudding and the sweetness of mango”. This impossible berry-lemon-mango fruit is a metaphor for the three principal characters, who are just as impossible and may not survive anywhere else but within the pages of this book.

That is not to say Mukherjee’s characters are fragile. They are just too real in a world that prefers masks. Mira, in whose voice the story is told, is a young widow who finds solace first in European philosophy, and then in a quaint young couple. The couple, Sara and Rahil, inhabits a world of spiritual love and phantom illnesses.

There is an air of mystique in their lives and, as we get in deeper along with Mira, we are faced with realities that begin to resemble our own. Overly protective or disengaged parents, problematic relationships, half-truths and dark pasts are all familiar patterns in the novel.

And yet, the author is never confrontational. Her casual profundity throws the reader off guard. You are only a fly on a wall in Mira, Sara and Rahil’s world but you cannot be a passive listener. When the three hold up mirrors to each other, you find one being held up to your face too.

Sara’s mysterious string of illnesses, Rahil’s baffling indulgence, and Mira’s aching loneliness swirl with grief and philosophy, forming a hypnotic phantasmagoria. They are instantly drawn to each other and enter a three-way relationship that defies definition. Mira admits that “I knew what it meant and I had no idea what it meant. The language of forbidden love has no common book. It is a series of coded sentences, its meanings created in the head of an individual and choked out to the other. Words that dangle between lovers, each of them finding the meaning they want to hear at that time.”

Within the tangible confines of the body lie uncertain, incomprehensible constructs such as the mind, real or imagined ailments, quaint symptoms of painful pasts. Mukherjee moves nimbly through these tricky territories without ever losing the plot. Despite the confusion, her characters remain rooted in something that is entirely pure because it is entirely human.

Even though their bodies, rife with longing, illness, love, and memories, become the playground upon which the story unfolds, their flesh remains unsullied. Not once in the course of this complex story do the words extramarital, lesbian, bisexual or polyamorous enter one’s mind, and that is the author’s greatest triumph.

And yet, when the story ends — it, in fact, does not truly end — there are no resolutions, because life can only be measured by its many mysteries.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a writer and researcher focusing on Indian cultural history

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Published on August 23, 2019
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