Nearly ten years ago, Rheea Mukherjee and I met as students in the graduate creative writing program at California College for the Arts in San Francisco. We became fast friends; I was fascinated by Rheea’s multicultural background and her beautiful, confident writing. After graduation, she returned to India, started a few businesses, published a short story collection, headed a writing workshop, and adopted a few dogs. We kept in touch over social media, each always championing the other’s creative endeavors.
So, I was delighted to find that she’d recently published her debut novel, The Body Myth, released from Unnamed Press in February 2019. The Body Myth is an engrossing love story that reads like a thriller.
The novel tells the story of three young people living in a fictional city in India. The narrator, a young widow, named Mira, becomes infatuated and falls in love with the mysterious Sara. They meet in a public park when Sara has a seizure. But is she faking? Sara’s husband Rahil doesn’t seem to think so. Soon enough the three of them become involved in a three-way relationship that unfolds as a love story, a power struggle, and something deeper, and perhaps more disturbing, that Mira, and the reader, struggle to define.
We spoke recently about the complicated nature of power struggles, how culture influences medical care, and father-daughter relationships.
The Rumpus: The Body Myth starts with your narrator, Mira, speaking directly to the reader; she says, “Take my story like you would a large pill.” I feel so much is accomplished by this first line—we know the story will be told solely from Mira’s point of view, even though it’s about her experience with a married couple, Sara and Rahil, but we also understand that we must accept her version of events or dismiss it altogether. And thirdly, we are introduced to Mira’s voice, one rich with layers and metaphor. How did you come to this voice? Is your writing style usually full of metaphor, or did you find this voice while constructing the novel?
Rheea Mukherjee: I’ve never been asked about the very start of my novel, so thank you for this question. The beginning of the book has a lot to do with the way I behave as a reader. I was using the metaphor to get right into the story. This is because I was trying to start a project that I would enjoy reading. I do have a bias for books that get the reader right into the story. I enjoy narrators who can wink at the reader and prepare them for the story ahead. It’s a risky thing to do, because breaking the fourth wall can become a huge disaster and take the reader out of the story, so I had to be consistent with Mira. With her, there was an element of reader handholding, but I was hoping to let the reader feel empowered by it, like it was Mira who needed the reader to hold her hand and not the other way around. Metaphors themselves are a tricky thing to rely on though. When I teach workshops, I am very blunt about using them sparingly. Your prose can seem overwrought and disingenuous if you are using it just to play with language. I had to build metaphors into Mira first, and that comes from her worldview. I think as writers we can mess up if we skip that exercise and insert lovely-sounding metaphors that don’t fit the character’s perspective.
Rumpus: The first time I read your book, I couldn’t put it down. I was surprised to find myself enthralled by a love story. I believe this is because there are multiple mysteries at the heart of the book. We want to know about Sara as much as Mira does. What first inspired you to write about a love story between a widow and a married couple? How many layers did you add to the story before you felt you had got it “just right”?
Mukherjee: At its heart, The Body Myth is a love story. The last decade has taught me that love stories are also case studies of how much we’ve met ourselves and satiated our own existential questions. The characters were invested in understanding themselves in context to the world they had been groomed in. All three main characters are from a middle/upper middle class and privileged section of India. While technically this population is a minority in India, they are structurally given all the benefits of accessing social and economic capital in the country.
Once all these metrics of basic success are met (heteronormative marriage, jobs, stability, networks) what is the end purpose of our existence? There is an existential question in there that I am trying to find an answer to for myself.
A few things make comfortable people wake up; grief is one of them—having the rug pulled out from under you. Mira never questioned her cog-in-the-wheel life until she lost her husband and all her cozy expectations of life were taken away. Being pulled into this rather magnetic relationship with Sara and her husband is a consequence of grief, a place where she can examine herself in the absence of all other heteronormative/monogamous expectations and figure out if her recent obsession with intellectualism is a move towards personal growth or just a way to protect herself from the world.
My motive in writing this story was not about the polyamory aspect of it, it was a spiritual and existential notion I was working with, and the plot is an outcome of that. This novel came out of me in three intense months, but it was very short at that point. Just forty-three thousand words, a novella if you will. Over the next year it went through layers of edits, adding scenes and tightening the “thriller” aspect of it. It’s still a very short novel, just about sixty thousand words. I think its brevity is also important; it’s a very insular story.
Rumpus: Why did you choose to set the story in a fictional city? Was this a choice you made early on? What were the benefits and the downsides of making that decision?
Mukherjee: There is both a cop-out answer to this and a very purposeful answer, so I’ll present both and let you decide.
The city I am most familiar with in India is Bangalore, where I live and where I spent most of the 90s and early ‘00s. Bangalore used to be this pleasant refuge decades ago, known for its fantastic weather and greenery. Then the IT boom happened and all the tech companies came here. The city couldn’t keep up and simply didn’t have the infrastructure to hold the millions of people that migrated here for work. Skip forward to 2019, and our population is more than twelve million (to compare, NYC has a population of eight million, and we’re slightly smaller in terms of space). While most Indian cities have issues with basic infrastructure, Bangalore’s roads and public transport is particularly bad considering we’re supposed to be the IT hub of Asia.
I’ve seen Bangalore change so much over the years that I felt too close to it; it felt somehow disingenuous to set the story here. I’ll admit it’s really not a very rational thought or reason. I just knew I wanted to take my understanding of urban India from the lens of middle and upper middle-class India, of which all three main characters very much belong to. While I was writing, the story seemed so insular that the name of the city almost didn’t matter; what mattered was the truths of the characters’ existence within them. There was also this mythical quality I was trying to bring in with the book—the fruit brought that in and I thought it paired naturally with a city that no one in India could claim but could relate to.
That said, when the book was released in India many Bangalore readers came to me and said point blank, “It’s easy to see that Suryam is actually just Bangalore” or ‘”Why did you make it a fictional city? It’s obvious it’s Bangalore.” Later, I realized they were right, there are several little things that only people from Bangalore can catch; it’s nothing super specific, maybe it’s our own collective imagination of this place, but I had subconsciously brought in the city I was trying my hardest to avoid. So, I think the upside of it being a fictional city is that Suryam adds that mythical quality I was looking for, at least in theory. The downside is that a lot of Bangalore locals feel that Suryam is just Bangalore and probably read the entire novel that way.
Rumpus: How did you manage to make a love story, a domestic tale, seem so high-stakes?
Mukherjee: I have a secret obsession with domestic thrillers of the Gone Girl variety. I love how the ordinary and mundane can be viewed through the lens of intrigue, mystery, and unpredictable shifts. When you think of the world at large, and how much gross inequality we exist within, there is something off-kilter with the way the middle and upper-middle classes live in isolated bubbles; there has to be a level of protection that keeps us from being in touch with the real world, and a lot of our behaviors—from retail therapy and hobbies to socialization and way we work with mental illness—are created from a very insular context, whether we’re in the US or India.
I am not saying people should feel bad or guilty for their lifestyles, but I do think our current lifestyle starts to erode our political identities and stakes in the larger world. It keeps us complicit and attuned to self-care in a performative way. All of these elements are fascinating for me and there is so much material to create emotional mysteries with them.
Rumpus: Every relationship has at least some sort of power struggle within it. Are there any novels or personal experiences that you drew on for inspiration?
Mukherjee: Yes, every relationship has a power struggle. Some want to validate themselves intellectually or emotionally. Some need caretakers, others want to do the caretaking. We’re all trying to find identity when we’re in a relationship. I think companionship is important, but also, I think a majority of us seek out relationships to find parts of ourselves; our culture is very under-confident when it comes to being happy with who we are as individual beings.
So many books have inspired me: I like the storytelling segue of Orhan Pamuk; I like the intimate monologues of Murakami’s characters. When I was a teenager, I was very influenced by a book many would roll their eyes at: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. It had the careless mother who evolved into straight-up evil. It had incest built into its narrative as a consequence of other people’s action and it also had siblinghood and the rigidity of dogmatic religion. There is the The Last Song of Dusk, a book I greatly loved, by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi. I also love the psychological thrill and feminism Joyce Carol Oats brings to the table. There are two books I read post writing the book that I feel connected to: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.
Rumpus: Death, the medical system, science, and redemption are also important themes to the story, as Mira’s deceased mother and husband appear over and over throughout the novel, and Sara’s mysterious illness is at the heart of the novel. Our beliefs on these topics are heavily influenced by our respective cultures. You’ve spent half your life in India and half in the United States. How do you think your unique life experience influenced your writing (and your protagonist’s thoughts) on these topics?
Mukherjee: In America, the culture of medical care is more straightforward. It also gives you total autonomy, in that sense; there is no moral judgement when it inquires into your symptoms. Now that can be a double-edged sword, because in my opinion America tends to stay away from the personal and the community you come from and band-aid your issues with an one-size-fits-all solution. America is comfortable with medicating all the time for whatever reason, and painkillers aren’t thought of as an excess. India is pill-shy; even everyday painkillers are thought twice about before having. I am way more American when it comes to pain management, if I have a headache I don’t think twice about having Paracetamol (or Tylenol in the US).
When it comes to doctor-patient relationships, India is more intrusive and it can be severely annoying, even though I am exceptionally privileged in India, that doctors assume “sexually active” means married. We literally have to make community documents on the internet to list out doctors who are LGBTQIA+ friendly and doctors who are aware of structural oppressions when it comes to class and caste in India.
There are a lot of societal indicators that doctors make assumptions on. For example, the last doctor I met assumed I ate meat and fish because of my last name. They assumed I was from a Bengali Hindu family (which my father is, but not my mother; I am the product of an inter-religious marriage). I had to correct them and tell them I had been a vegetarian for years and vegan for the last three. So, they are always surprised by autonomous decisions in India. At the last appointment I had with my psychiatrist (who treats me for chronic depression), she told me she had worked both in the US and India but that she finds India a little more open to being philosophical when it comes to the doctor-patient relationship.
But yes, as you said, culture is the foundation of how medicine is provided, no matter how rational or objective people want to make it sound. For example, get a very conservative doctor in India, they might factor in your singlehood as a reason for anxiety and depression. Or you might be asked a hundred intrusive questions when you are sure you want an abortion. A lot of patriarchal questions like, “Are you sure you just won’t get married?” and “Who is the father?” and “Do your parents know about this?”
I think we need to work towards a middle ground between the US and India, where autonomy is respected but we also can talk about the community and acknowledge the various structural oppressions that make things like mental health especially hard.
Rumpus: Appa, Mira’s father, is my favorite character in the book. I don’t know how you captured the father/daughter relationship so perfectly! Can you talk a little bit about writing the scenes between Mira and her father?
Mukherjee: A lot of it was aspirational. How I’d have wanted my relationship to be with my father, who I lost in 2012. He loved both me and my brother very much; the funny thing about him was that he was very inconsistently feminist. He’d want the best for me in terms of education and doing what I wanted, but he also had notions of how women should behave and what their roles were. I think he lived with a misplaced identity for the longest time. When he was growing up in India, he was a rebel of sorts, an iconoclast who rejected a lot of the rubbish notions India has held on to: like marrying only within your community/caste, studying only engineering or medical college (which are the ideals much of middle-class India shoots for).
Then, he immigrated to the US and as the years passed, I think he started interpreting his longing for India by elevating its perceived culture. And when that happens, you are being very inconsistent with your worldview. He found it very hard to critique India when he got older, and I only got sharper at it, but with this difference: that I chose India as my final country. Today, I think I critique both my countries fairly.
I think that’s something a lot of first-generation immigrants struggled with, the isolation of the West allows you to glorify the culture and country you were born into. If my father was alive, he would have been most proud of this book; he really wanted me to be published but he didn’t live to see it. I think a lot of the easy conversations Mira has with her father represent the ease I wanted in my own relationship with my dad. Mira was certainly hiding things about her life from her Appa, but she still wasn’t shy about expressing who she was to him.
Photograph of Rheea Mukherjee by Indrayudh Ghoshal.