‘The Body Myth’: Just Your Typical Sufi-Tinged Melodrama About Polyamory in Modern India
Real polyamory is not as sexy as fantasies suggest. When three lovers in a triad are bound by taboo and don’t communicate well, the relationship is likely to blow up spectacularly. Insert into this dynamic a woman who may be severely mentally ill, or may be a Sufi saint, and you have the spine of The Body Myth, the debut novel from Rheea Mukherjee.
Mira, who narrates the novel, lives in Suryam, a fictional city in India. Her husband suddenly dies less than a year into their relationship. She shows courage in the face of this stunning grief, which makes her immediately sympathetic. She’s gradually recovering when she meets Sara, a woman with a handful of ill-defined, constantly-changing illnesses, and Sara’s stalwart husband, Rahil. In the mix is Mira’s gentle father, who eventually reveals a dreadful secret about her mother’s death, and Mira’s position as an English teacher at a school that wants her to teach with a progressive bent, but only to a point. The vulnerable, winning narration demonstrates a woman going through an entire spectrum of feelings; there’s a lot going on in the emotional landscape of this book. The tension of how each character will react to the others’ moods and changing affections keeps the reading experience engrossing.
Plus, the intellectual underpinnings of the book evade a single category, making it a pleasurably challenging read. Mira finds solace in postwar European philosophy after her husband’s death, and she integrates de Beauvoir into her teaching and Foucault into her correspondence with Sara. Sara’s medical condition is recognizable to those who’ve brushed against it as Munchausen syndrome. But she also practices, loosely, some of the rituals of Sufism. “Your soul is rejecting your body, that’s all,” Rahil tells Sara at one point. “You want to go back to a place of bliss and love, but I need you, so tell your soul to stay its course, find your Ma’rifa here, find it in this life.” By the end of the book, Mukherjee has almost persuaded the reader that Sara is a full-fledged Sufi saint, rather than a deluded, attention-seeking woman.
But, in the meantime, Mira is drawn completely in by Sara, whose selfishness is no hindrance to her magnetism. Something about Sara attracts people and makes them want to care for her, and she manipulates this quality while spiritually satisfying her caretakers. Mukherjee successfully evokes Sara’s complex character, as well as the unsettling symbiosis among the triad that develops.
Mira becomes romantically involved with both Sara and Rahil, separately, with awareness and awkwardness passing among the three participants. Part of the dynamic in this novel is the aberration of it all: polyamory is simply not practiced in India, not at all, not even in modern India. Mira, Sara, and Rahil are on new ground, in a situation for which they have no previous context.
Last year’s debut from Elle Nash, Animals Eat Each Other, explored a similar relationship between a married couple and a vulnerable woman. That situation was almost nihilistic, and the relationship between the three parties was much more sexual than romantic. The Body Myth has a similar story, but with deeper, more melodramatic emotions—in the positive sense of that word, the sweeping, mesmerizing color and sound of a Douglas Sirk film.
And Mukherjee, although she has a weak ear for dialogue, has an uncanny grasp of unlabored characterization, as when Mira scrolls through the social media profile of an old friend: “Her baby boy wasn’t all that cute. I immediately felt bad for thinking that.” Mira’s past traumas combine with Sara’s illnesses and behaviors in a series of chemical reactions that could fuel a book three times The Body Myth’s length, yet feel wholly organic.
“Our bodies are like the world, Mira,” Sara explains early on. “Beautiful, hysterical, hypocritical, mysterious, poor, and temporary. Mine just happens to be all of those at once.” Bodies are very much at issue in this novel, in a de Beauvoiresque metaphorical sense as well as a sweat-and-tears literal sense. Mira endures so much in this book, in both soul and body. On the other side is integration, and a deeper transition: into a vessel for new life.
(Unnamed Press, Feb. 26, 2019)