Rheea Mukherjee on her novel The Body Myth, and why voyeurism is rooted in our own hypocrisies
The Body Myth is a sapid meditation on loving and being loved in health and sickness.
Rheea Mukherjee wrote her first essay at 22. She says it "came from the undiluted space of 'I just have to write this story that I feel inside my head'". Her new novel, The Body Myth, came to her as fiercely. Quite like the Rasagura, the tempting fictional fruit it introduces you to in the very first chapter, the book demands you sink your teeth into it. What follows is not only a sapid meditation on loving and being loved but also an intimate representation of finding and losing with a generous serving of cynicism. More from the author on her novel below:
When and how did the story of The Body Myth begin to take shape?
The Body Myth was my third attempt at a novel. Unfortunately, my main character demanded a lot of research, so I had to spend a couple of months just reading and Youtube-ing mini-lessons in philosophy. Once that period was over, the first draft of the novel came out in six months. At that point, it was just a novella. I submitted it to an amazing Twitter competition called Pitch Wars that pairs writers with mentors. I was mentored by the incredible crime mystery writer, Kristen Lepionka. We worked on the manuscript for another few months. In May 2018 my book was accepted by my US publishers. And then guess what? More editing! So even though the first six months to finish, the book you read took over two years to be what it is today.
Were you certain about polyamory being one of the core ideas of the book?
When the book was first published it got tagged under polyamory and I got a lot of questions about it. It’s funny, because when I was writing the book I had no labels in my head. I know my characters are testing the boundaries of what they have been conditioned by: heteronormative monogamy, but I don’t think they were thinking of their sociological context, for one thing, I sure wasn’t. I was looking at three people who were searching for purpose and their relationship was an outcome of it. I do believe labels allow people, especially marginalised communities, to politically organise and develop safe spaces, but I also see how binary assumptions about human behaviour can be contradictory. It’s one of the elements I was trying to explore in my process of writing this book.
The Rasagura is such a delicious metaphor, and you begin your book with it. What did you want to achieve with it?
Honestly, it comes from the attempt of trying to create a story that seems relatable but mythical at the same time. It’s the reason I also made up a fictional city, even though many readers come to me and say “but isn’t this just Bengaluru?”
Sara is someone who I can see parts of me in, but also someone who is inexplicable. She set the tone of the novel for me in a lot of ways. The Rasagura therefore might seem exotic and fascinating to a reader, but is just an everyday part of life in Suryam. I wanted to allow exotic and mundane rest side by side. That’s my understanding of it, readers may have their own.
Like all women, the women in The Body Myth carry their trauma around. It's rare to see pain being depicted as a pervasive force in women's lives...
The last decade has really opened up the discussion of trauma and mental health on social media platforms. However, there still seems to be a discrepancy in our dialogue. The language in how we talk about mental health and trauma is inherited from the West. I think a certain section of privileged India has amputated further cultural probing in the way we talk about it and understand it. For one thing, discussing trauma and mental health on social media is typically a marker of our class and even caste, but we shy away from looking at those aspects of it and seeing how many other communities have worded, talked about, and felt about trauma. In general, women have been raised on trauma of some kind. They are socialised to take more pain, both mentally and physically. We imitate and reinforce these notions because we’ve been told to do the same. Take, for example, the issue of menstrual pain, there are women who experience such excruciating pain during their period that they are incapacitated, but it’s still written off as - well, it’s your period, get a hot water bag and get over it.
The way the characters live their lives in the book reflect their urban upbringing; they rarely talk about money or economics. Do you think that privilege could alienate certain readers?
I was very aware that I was writing the story of urban Indians from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds. I don’t know how aware the characters are of their social privilege but I think it’s important to note that the story is from a viewpoint of urban privilege. I think as a writer with social privilege it’s important to write honestly from the lens you access the world with. I also think you have to accept the major flaws in your characters. For example, Mira is obsessed with western philosophy, even though her own country has so much literature and a history of regional social justice movements she only accesses what most English-speaking Indians have been taught to value as intellectually superior. Our education system is heavily colonised, we aren’t taught to question where our privileges come from, we are taught to unconsciously keep them intact. Mira, Sara, and Rahil are all products of this collective education.
I don’t think economics alone allow readers to connect to characters, in the end, we are all human and respond to the world in emotionally similar ways. All three characters are what I’d like to call urban comfortable, meaning their bills get paid and their income allows them to access a lot of globalised capitalism consumption without too much thought. Perhaps, there is critique in what such financial freedom does for a generation of urban Indians? Does it allow us to truly explore our capacity as human beings? Does it make us cogs in the wheel? I think it’s a mix of both.
Even as a major aspect of Rahil, Sara and Mira's relationship is carnal, the narrative isn't voyeuristic at all. Did you consciously want to maintain the sanctity of their dynamic?
I think voyeurism is rooted in our own hypocrisies. Even when it comes to issues that I am passionate about, I cringe when people use bodies to demonstrate a social justice issue, or use graphic images and emotional arm-twisting to make a point. Why do we have to show blood, gore, and anatomy for us to negotiate our values and thoughts? That’s limiting. We have the imagination to write about love, sex, and even violence in ways that allow us to see our own flaws and think from new perspectives.
The body feels like the backbone of the story — both as a metaphysical and tangible property. Did writing this book affect your own understanding of it?
I do live with chronic depression and chronic migraines. At the same time, I’ve found that mental illness has so many parts to it, and most of it is your own unique manifestation of it. As an urban woman in the internet age, I am overexposed to notions of responding to illness and body via the internet: so many labels, so many binary ways of looking at symptoms and expressions of those symptoms. I was untangling a lot of those notions when I was writing The Body Myth. I was also looking at my own life from an existential and spiritual perspective. Because, in the end, with all the complexity of the world, all the ironies, mysteries, opinions, violence, and beauty: there you are, and you have to accept yourself as a part of this wide, wild, universe.
You invoke certain revolutionary writers and thinkers as the story moves forward. Were they always meant to be part of Mira's journey? Also, is that more like you or Mira?
I recently wrote an article on writing a character that is smarter than you. Or at least smarter in a bookish way. I am a very curious person, but I am not like Mira at all. I haven’t been able to read half as much as she has, nor do I have the ability to contextualise history and philosophy into everyday conversation like she does. It was tricky. Some people might find Mira pretentious, but I see her as a woman who wants very simple things in life. She just used intellectualism to cope with her grief and validate her purpose in the world.
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