Our Bodies Are Like the World: An Interview with Rheea Mukherjee




IN RHEEA MUKHERJEE’S debut novel, The Body Myth, Mira, a recently widowed teacher living in the bustling Indian city of Suryam, witnesses a beautiful woman having a seizure in the park. Mira is quickly drawn into the lives of this mysterious woman, Sara — who suffers a myriad of unexplained illnesses — and her intensively supportive husband, Rahil, striking up an intimate, fragile, and volatile friendship with each of them. I spoke over email with Mukherjee about writing about the body, chronic illness, women’s pain and desire, and the many gray areas that exist in love, illness, and history.

¤

JESSIE CHAFFEE: The Body Myth is such a smart and complex exploration of what it means to be in a body in the world, what it means to be in a body that is ill, and what it means to be in a body in love. And like all of those states of being, the book is filled with ambiguity and contradictions. As Sara, the object of Mira’s desire, observes, “Our bodies are like the world […] Beautiful, hysterical, hypocritical, mysterious, poor, and temporary.” What drew you to the body as the center around which the novel unfolds?

RHEEA MUKHERJEE: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t negotiating my own spiritual perspective of the world when I was writing this book. I think our bodies are political from birth. We are born into many preassumed identities and cultural habits. We’re born into invisible privileges and histories of oppression before knowing our own names. As Simone de Beauvoir said, the body is not a thing, it is a situation. And that situation is mostly determined by external factors. So, then, is true liberation just understanding and being who you truly are in the fullest capacity possible? I think I was consciously playing with this possibility when I was writing.

One of the most powerful elements of the novel is its portrayal of pain. In fiction and film, women’s pain is frequently sensationalized in unhealthy ways. But there is also genuine power in pain, and you delve into the contradictions in that beautifully through Mira, who both envies Sara’s pain and also recognizes the problem of valorizing a woman who “could waste away with grace.” How did you think about writing pain — and, more specifically, writing women’s pain?

I think it’s compelling you picked pain as a theme here. When I was writing The Body Myth, I was suffering from multiple migraines a month. This time period allowed me to engage with pain in a very pure form. The reason I say pure is because there is nothing threatening about a migraine, it’s just the feeling of misery and isolation. When you’re in acute pain, you can’t participate in everyday activities, but what’s more, the other critical elements of self cease to exist as well. My curiosity, my ambition, my engagement with the good and bad in the world is rendered irrelevant when in pain. It was almost spiritual, it brought me to the core of being in that moment. Sara, I admit, seduces Mira partly because of her inexplicable pain, something that is almost romanticized. I wanted to play with that notion, the idea that suffering — mentally, physically, or both — can also be a response to the world we live in. A negotiation with your inner self (or soul) and what the world is telling you. My migraines are far less frequent nowadays. In the last year, I have a lot more clarity about who I am and how I respond to the world. I can’t prove causation, but I suspect there is a relationship.

Sara is fighting for control of her body and she also uses it to control others. One of the major tensions in this battle has to do with the authenticity of Sara’s illness. Given that women’s illness is often minimized, misdiagnosed, or sidelined as purely emotional or psychological, I wanted to believe Sara. And yet as a reader I found myself asking the very questions that enrage me — Is she truly sick? Is she making herself sick? Was the tension between the reality/myth of Sara’s illness something you considered before writing or that you discovered while writing the book?

Our patriarchal context has groomed us (women) to accept some pain no matter what. Especially when it comes to mental illness, menstrual pain, and anxiety, women have had to fight very difficult battles to demand and then warrant care. That said, I very much wanted to address faking illness and pain in the book. How it blurs into being psychosomatic, but also, how psychosomatic is dismissed as just “being in your head.” People who are psychologically triggered into physical pain can feel the same pain that an identifiable physical cause can effect. If someone is faking illness, they are responding to the world and asking for something from it. It is an illness in itself, or even a response to the environment one is existing in. When you look at the scientific discussions around illness and medication, it becomes apparent that the burden of rationality also comes with the burden of the ego. We’re not comfortable with things we don’t understand. A good example of this is the dismissive tone with which the word placebo is often offered. Does it mean that our mind can create results if we think something is true? It seems too woo-woo for the rational world to discuss and its exploration is halted by the word “evidence.” “Evidence” thrives on the assumption that humans have the capabilities to perceive or observe everything the universe is.

This is a love story, but one in which love — both in the present and lost love — is bound up with pain. So, an impossible question: Does meaningful love have to be painful? And is that something you struggled with as you were crafting the novel?

I believe “love” only registers in our heart and head as a narrative when it’s defined by conflict. Not necessarily tragedy, but conflict for sure. Tragedy allows you to allocate a lot more sentimental aspirations to love. It allows you to work with grief and the inevitability of permanent loss, something vital to the human experience. Conflict, even the more benign varieties, keeps the mind constantly aware of this feeling, this abstract notion of “love.” Politics also affect love, and conflict can emerge from simply being born into a particular race, class, gender, or caste. But there is regular love too. Happy couples and communities of people who love each other and commit to that feeling in quiet harmony. This kind of love though doesn’t lend itself well to a narrative.

I love the way that you chose to tell this story. While Mira is in some ways a victim of Sara and Rahil’s manipulations, she has tremendous agency as the narrator. She is telling this story retrospectively and with a conscious awareness that she is crafting the narrative. Why did you decide to frame the story in this way?

I’ve always liked a narrator who is putting on a mini-performance for their readers. When I was doing my MFA, I was constantly reminded that building scenes was the most important aspect of crafting a good story. When I was writing the book, though, it was becoming clear I had to acknowledge Mira’s need to narrate certain parts of the story directly to the reader. This was unsurprising because I took delight in reading narrators who would take the time to be guides and “tell” us some of the information. In writing this novel, I found that balance as a writer, a place where I could create enough scenes to build the narrative, but also have Mira pop in as an unreliable narrator and command a special space with her readers. I can only hope my readers will see it the same way.

The story opens with the “Rasagura,” the fruit indigenous to Suryam that cannot be cultivated anywhere else. And though Mira says that the Rasagura has nothing to do with the story’s beginning, it is nevertheless where the story begins. Can you speak a bit about your decision to open the story with that mythical fruit — and also your decision to set the book in a city that Mira describes as “an ordinary Indian city with weak infrastructure and a bunch of people in a hurry”?

It’s funny you ask this, because the Rasagura emerged from my earnest attempt to not base this book in Bangalore, where I live. The dynamic of Sara, Rahil, and Mira was so insular in my head, I knew setting it in a real city would take away from this mythical element I wanted to create in the book. The Rasagura is the only magical realism in the book, it was my anchor in creating the tone for the story. The fruit, to me, represents how we all have a relationship with the place we live; it might seem exotic, weird, or even aspirational from the outside, but on the inside, you see it very differently. The Rasagura is something Mira brings in right at the start because she senses this aspect of seeing her city from the inside and the outside. Much like her story, which is absolutely unique but also so very normal and real to her.

History is central to the novel: personal history, medical history, the country’s history, the history that does or doesn’t make it into the canon, hidden history, and also the unfinished history that Mira experiences as a widow. How did you think about history as you were writing the novel?

Mira is well read and has a father who is obsessed with global history, especially the World Wars. She also has the ability to contextualize the past in the present and account for the voices that were missed in history. I made a choice to bring attention to our culture of celebrating individuality, one that can forget the many collective histories we come from. I think seeking the self is liberating, its pursuit should be an equal right, but very few get that opportunity. There seems to be a new wave of media that focuses on the importance of community. The era we now exist in gives us the most access to nuanced global information that we’ve ever had, and I think there is a real opportunity to relearn how we’ve been made to construct our realities. This process can allow one to reclaim oneself while also being hugely empathetic to the world we live in. I believe finding the uniqueness of your being while honoring the stories and people that brought you to this reality mirror each other. It’s also a chance to embrace the vast amount of gray area that exists in between all the black and white we’ve been taught.

Much of the book hinges on Mira’s search for meaning after the sudden death of her husband. Before finding Sara, Mira finds answers in the European existentialists — de Beauvoir, Camus, Sartre, and Foucault become the foundation on which she constructs a new philosophy in the wake of loss. As a writer, who were your influences? What works served as launching points for the topics and themes you wanted to explore?

I am one of those people who theoretically wants to know everything, especially when it comes to history, cultures, pop culture, and global politics. So writing the parts of the book that required heavy research was a natural way to translate my curiosity into narrative. In real life, I have a horrible memory and can’t remember names, dates, or places very well. Though I don’t think I am particularly enchanted by any of the philosophers that are mentioned in the book, I do value parts of their perspectives and see why they can be powerful. My everyday influences are far simpler and even sillier, like Bollywood and social media debates, and while it might not seem obvious in the book, these influences gave me the most perspective when I wrote.

¤

Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence in Ecstasy (Unnamed Press, 2017), is forthcoming in translation in six countries. She is an editor at Words Without Borders.

 

RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT