We think we know what we want. Often, we’re wrong. Happiness seems to be the all-important project of our hyper-individualistic times, but closer inspection yields that belonging is what we really seek. Everyone needs an identity with which to perceive oneself and the world around them.

The hyperbole of “breaking moulds” and “transgressing boundaries” fails to mention that the journey must end with us arriving at a different mould, a different boundary within which we can place ourselves. Boundaries aren’t a weakness – they are an existential necessity. Belonging is what distracts us from the endlessness of being.

Yet, knowing that one must belong is arriving at only half the solution. How to go about donning an identity the way one would a shirt is another problem altogether. And for the younger half of Indian urban middle-class men and women, the notion of “fitting in” is complex. Caught between avowed traditions and values that nonetheless inform some of their deepest beliefs on one side, and a daunting yet alluring self-assertion on the other, they find themselves trying to reconcile the two, often creating a hybrid that can neither be explained, nor rationalised; simply lived.

The elusiveness of labels

Rheea Mukherjee’s The Body Myth is a brave attempt in trying to articulate a unique relationship between the widowed Mira and a married couple, Sara and Rahil. This is Mukherjee’s second work, following a collection of short stories that trace the lives of vulnerable people in urban settings. The Body Myth furthers this theme, creating a deft commentary on the elusiveness of labels, the allure of transgressions, and the limits of language itself in trying to define something new and yet utterly authentic.

Mira is at the park, in the fictional city of Suryam, when she first sets eyes on Sara. As she watches, Sara begins to convulse. Mira runs towards her but is told to not interrupt by Sara’s husband, Rahil. She has seizures sometimes, he tells her. Little does she know at the time that the couple will become an inextricable part of her life.

Recovering from the death of her husband, Mira finds solace in Sara and Rahil’s company. Kept company by the French existentialists she read in her time at the recovery home (the farm, she calls it), she is now submerged in the world of Sara and her mysterious illnesses, and Rahil and his calm compliance in tending to his sickly wife. What begins as a friendship grows into an unusual relationship between the three, one that fascinates and frightens Mira in equal measure. As they negotiate their evolving dynamic, pitfalls become evident, as do the possibilities of rich, meaningful bonds.

The narrative is dominated almost entirely by Mira and Sara. One feels the weight of their ideas and emotions much more poignantly than Rahil’s, who is almost always presented in relation to the two – loving husband to Sara, comforting respite to Mira. Through the two women, Mukherjee has created a medium to express different philosophical ideas and attitudes, a facility often reserved by male authors for their male characters. Sara’s theory of cosmic wholeness as she sways to Sufi music, or Mira’s interpretation of Sara’s illnesses through the lens of philosopher Foucault’s commentary on mental health are two of many such illuminating ideas brought up in the course of the novel.

Body, mind, and in between

Like any idea-oriented novel, the characters are a manifestation of their thoughts. They express their beliefs through their actions, their bodies. A clash between opposing ideas is not only inevitable, it is desired. When Mira confronts Sara’s illnesses, her first instinct is to give it a name, a rational basis for diagnosis and cure. Guided by Western influences, she looks to pinpoint a source of the problem. Sara scoffs at such simple causes and effects, relying instead on the ethereal and the unknowable to explain her condition.

Mira is inclined to believe Sara’s problems to be psychosomatic (literally, willed to life), while Sara herself resists labelling her condition, for that would reduce her to a laboratory specimen. The reader will find themselves tugged in both directions as they try to make sense of the situation, sometimes convinced of Mira’s scientific diagnosis, other times sympathetic to Sara’s logic of inner forces driving her body to decay.

While the debate over physical illness and the mind – and the relationship between them – captures a major part of the novel, Mira’s insights into and observations on the banal and everyday keep the narrative alive and refreshing even as the plot moves in inscrutable directions. Consider her remark about “true love” actually being a product of similar experiences brought about by class similarities, or the source of her admiration for philosopher Simone de Beauvoir being that she, like most women, “had a knack for simplifying the complexities men create for the sake of their egos”. Even as Mira stumbles from ecstasy to yearning to a calm resignation, her thoughts keep offering little gems that sometimes amuse, other times devastate. And that is just one of the reasons that The Body Myth demands to be read with complete alertness.

What is “normal”?

It isn’t difficult to go wrong with a love story. Insipid, bile-inducing tales about star-crossed lovers litter the literary landscape. Writing as she is, first and foremost, a story about a woman learning to cope with life in the face of irreparable loss, Mukherjee does a remarkable job of keeping away from clichés. Mira is vulnerable, yes, but she is equal parts tenacious and strong-willed. She seeks love and support, but she is unwilling to sacrifice her dignity for the same. So intricately layered is her personality that towards the end of the book, one feels like Mira stands in front of one. One can hear her voice as she narrates an end that isn’t supposed to feel satisfactory – yet, it is, surprisingly, the only thing that makes sense.

However, while the characters themselves come to life in the novel, the city of Suryam does not. In fact, the city is highly forgettable. The only thing that stands out about it is its unique soil that yields the Rasagura fruit. But the significance of the fruit, too, is lost to the reader. If it is meant to be allegorical to the uniqueness of the relationship between Mira, Sara, and Rahil, it is too obvious. And if it is meant to give a personality to the city, it is insufficient, since the fruit can’t be compensation for avoiding other details that make Suryam an actual place.

Finally, while the relationship between the three is highly complex, little of it is reflected in the society they inhabit. Apart from a gossipy housemaid and Mira’s thoughtful father, there is no one else they seem to keep their secret from. Their lives are enclosed within a bubble, curiously cut off from social interactions. It would have been rewarding, and no doubt inspiring for the many who do live such undercover lives, to see the trio manage their dynamic in the face of societal judgment and censure.

Nonetheless, Mukherjee’s novel is important because she has articulated a world that exists beyond the porous boundaries of tradition and what we call “normalcy”. Even as one reads through the gripping narrative, one will realise that there is something more that the novel is trying to convey, that it is a conduit to another world, undisturbed by language and is all-encompassing in its spirit. It is the realm of belonging – if only one believes.

The Body Myth

The Body Myth: A Novel, Rheea Mukherjee, Penguin Books.