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Three is a couple

  • Rheea Mukherjee’s debut novel takes a piercing look into marriage, mental health and mania
  • The plot revolves around a menage à trois between a couple, Sara and Rahil, and their friend Mira

‘Dora Maar In An Armchair’ (1939) by Pablo Picasso. Mukherjee writes evocatively on female desire and sexuality.
‘Dora Maar In An Armchair’ (1939) by Pablo Picasso. Mukherjee writes evocatively on female desire and sexuality. (Photo: Alamy)

Rheea Mukherjee’s debut novel, The Body Myth, opens with the protagonist, Mira, stumbling upon a bizarre scene while strolling in her neighbourhood park one day. A young woman, who we later learn is called Sara, seems to be having a seizure. As she falls off a bench, frothing at the mouth, Mira rushes in, alarmed, trailed by Sara’s husband Rahil, who appears unfazed by his wife’s predicament. Indeed, Sara recovers just as abruptly as she had taken ill. The three sit together for a few minutes before the couple invites Mira home for tea.

With this seemingly innocuous invitation, and Mira’s polite acceptance of it, her fate is sealed. Having lost her husband Ketan to an accident not too long ago, Mira is lonely, though not craving connection with anyone. Employed as an English teacher at an international school in the imaginary city of Suryam—famous for being the home of the fictional fruit, rasagura—Mira is aware that she is emotionally bereft and existentially unmoored.

But with her newfound friendship with Sara and Rahil, she realizes the extent to which she has been hungry for validation, especially from an attractive and affluent couple, who, in the absence of children and other domestic distractions, are more than willing to make her the centre of their universe.

The Body Myth: By Rheea Mukherjee; Penguin Random House; 240 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
The Body Myth: By Rheea Mukherjee; Penguin Random House; 240 pages; 499.

Their relationship, sparked off by friendly curiosity about one another’s lives, soon assumes an erotic and then a sexual charge. It also opens up an abyss in Mira’s mind as she becomes privy to Sara’s inscrutable afflictions and Rahil’s steady abetment of his wife’s need to be seen as an invalid. The ringside view of their marital ups and downs provokes Mira to look back on her own past, revisiting memories of her depressive mother, who died under unusual circumstances, and the inner darkness her late husband grappled with.

Upon this relatively narrow canvas of personal desires and disappointments, Mukherjee paints a richly imagined narrative, plumbing the depths of the human psyche—the inexplicable impulses that make us choose the paths we do, the intriguing forces that compel us to act the way we must. Written with clinical precision and the crispness of a thriller, but also capable of soaring to lofty heights of poetry, The Body Myth teems with ideas that are esoteric, often bleak and abstract, tracing their antecedents to existentialist philosophers like Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

For Mira, the slow recovery from her husband’s death begins with a year of immersive reading of these writers in a retreat for those suffering from mental health issues. While the books return her to life, a steady job and the promise of a routine, they appear hopelessly inadequate in the face of the mystery Sara brings into her life, with her incurable disease, love of Sufism, and fears planted in her by over-protective parents since she was a girl.

To be the recipient of Sara’s affections, Mira realizes, she has to fall in step with the rhythm of Sara’s sickness and health. Through such compliance, she also gets a taste of Rahil’s love—his need for her to be around—and a chance to establish a semblance of order in the volatile ménage à trois.

In its broad contours, the plot of The Body Myth reminds one of Ingmar Bergman’s movie Persona (1966), which deals with the relationship between a stage actor, Elisabet Vogler (played by Liv Ullman), who suffers a severe nervous breakdown, and her carer, a young and voluptuous nurse called Alma (Bibi Andersson). An intense psycho-sexual drama between two women, the movie becomes complicated with the arrival of Elisabet’s husband at the seaside cottage, where she is supposed to be recuperating.

Caught between her manipulative charge and Elisabet’s handsome husband, Alma feels as helpless as Mira, who, early on in The Body Myth, claims, “I felt like prey, with two exotic, magnificent animals gathered around me, sniffing, wanting, hunting."

The peculiar ambiguity of the human mind is such that being made to feel like the object of a chase isn’t necessarily undesirable. As Mira begins to understand the clinical dimensions of Sara’s condition, she realizes her own stakes in perpetuating it for the sake of sustaining their polyamorous relationship. And yet, in the end, the disease that once broke Sara also fixes her beyond Mira’s or Rahil’s imagination. Sara turns the myth of the body as a repository of pain and disease on its head, into a receptacle of agency, volition and emancipation.

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