The following is from Rheea Mukherjee's debut novel The Body Myth. Mira, a teacher living in Suryam, is quickly drawn into the lives of Sara, a mysterious woman who suffers myriad unexplained illnesses, and her kind, intensely supportive husband Rahil, striking up intimate, volatile and fragile friendships with each of them that quickly become something more. Rheea Mukherjee co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore.
The woman was sitting on a park bench in West Point Gardens, where I came every Sunday for a five-kilometer walk. She couldn’t see me, but I had stopped midstride to stare at her. I looked at her for three reasons:
- her face was twisted in contemplation;
- she was wearing a beige kurta with a transparent golden dupatta; and
- she was fucking gorgeous.
I am a woman who takes great pleasure in noticing other women, in raw appreciation for our sex, but also as a comparative study. I could not, however, take the time to assess her beauty. She was onto something strange. Her head darted behind and to the side; I was sure she was checking to see if anyone was looking at her. She was in the center of a vast bamboo garden. No one else was around. I was in the corner, out of her view. She looked back to the center, her facial muscles tweaked with confidence. She took a few deep breaths and started to tremble. I saw a man—white shirt, beige pants, thick hair—walking toward her. Suddenly, she began shaking violently, falling off the bench, saliva pouring out from her mouth. As she fell, the man broke into a trot and I found myself jogging toward her too.
“Don’t put anything into her mouth, let her be,” he said firmly before I even reached them.
I froze, holding my hands up in the air. He kneeled beside her and soothed her with his voice. “It’s going to be over soon, Sara. You’ve got this. It’s going to be over soon.”
She seemed to stabilize:, her body stilled, her face relaxed. He scooped her up, pushed her hand back, took her dupatta dupatta and wiped her mouth. Then he looked at me.
“Thank you for your concern, she has seizures sometimes.”
A man had never appeared so authentic to me. It made my heart flare up with an unseasoned emotion, a longing to hold his hand. Perhaps his authenticity was all the more palpable because of the inauthenticity of her seizure. None of it, I was beginning to realize, seemed real.
“Hey, I’m okay,” the woman croaked. She stroked the man’s face and looked toward me. “This is so embarrassing.” She sat up almost athletically and recrossed her legs on the bench. “I am Sara, and you are?”
“Mira. Do you need to go to a hospital?”
“No, she just needs to get back to her medication,” the man said with a hint of irritation, a dash of affection.
“I hate taking it every day. If you saw my med routine you’d think I was eighty-four, not twenty-nine.”
His name was Rahil and Sara was his wife. They’d been married seven years and had met in college. They didn’t seem shy, but I felt that there were only a certain number of questions they would answer, so I stopped. For a second or two there was silence. We heard a bird coo; we heard the feet of other walkers shuffle behind us. Rahil sat down by me on the mud, craning our heads to look up to Sara. Rahil reached toward me and dusted speckles of mud from my sneakers. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched me with absentminded affection. Sara looked down at my sneakers. “I love the blue laces.”
“Cool,” Rahil confirmed, as he pulled one of my laces out and then proceeded to tie it back. I wanted to giggle. A grown man and woman amused with my sneakers in the middle of a park. A couple willing to Sunday socialize minutes after a medical emergency. I looked at Sara, trying to discern what had happened. Was she really okay? Why didn’t she want to go to a hospital? And had she in fact started her seizure only after she’d made sure Rahil had appeared in the park?
Sara put her hand on Rahil’s head, ruffled his thick black hair, and asked him for some water. He pulled out an orange bottle from his backpack and handed it over. From her purse she pulled out a card of pills trapped in plastic bubbles. She popped a couple out of the foil, flipped them in her mouth, took a swig of water, and then immediately turned to me.
“So what do you do?”
It was one of those questions I couldn’t begin to answer. It was also one that had a very simple answer. “I teach English, at Seven Seeds.”
“International School?” Sara asked. Her mouth moved like she was tasting the ghost of the pills she’d just taken.
“Yeah . . .” I said. My voice trailed as I saw Rahil looking at me, deeply, endearingly. Sara’s eyes were right back on me. She seemed so present in the moment, and it made me uncomfortable.
“We live close by. Come? We rarely have people over.” Her voice was syrupy sweet, like an adolescent talking to her bestie in high school.
“But don’t you need to go to your doctor? You just lost consciousness.”
My question quivered but retained authority. Testing her. Testing myself. Her face didn’t flinch. “Oh, but it happens all the time. I know what to do; I just need a change in medication. I will see my doctor tomorrow.”
Their house happened to be only a kilometer away from the park. A small independent house on a lane that was dotted with houses as small as theirs and as large as small apartment buildings. In front of the house was a white metal table with matching chairs and pale blue pillows on the seats. Large potted plants surrounded the table, an oasis by the door. I imagined Sara and Rahil sitting there in the evenings, her lean legs propped on his thighs, her hair in a high bun, and cups of chai that sat with them as they talked the evening away. The living room was soothing pale blues and pinks. There were wooden side tables and a warm beige sofa that could seat five people comfortably. I plopped myself down and then awkwardly stood right back up, embarrassed that I’d sat without an invitation.
Sara scrunched her face in amusement. “Make yourself at home, really, please, I am not saying that for the sake of it.”
Rahil sat on a thickly cushioned chair opposite me. His khakis were spotless except for one splotch of mud on his left knee. His hair was notably thick and purposefully not cut. Sara sat right next to me, so close I could smell her. Soft, musky, with a hint of what I thought had to be rosewater. Rahil pushed his chair a few inches closer. I felt like prey, with two exotic, magnificent animals gathered around me, sniffing, wanting, hunting.
I succumbed easily. Sara’s inquisitiveness was erratic, compelling, and kind, gently probing further with each question: “What kind of childhood did you have?” “Do you like being an English teacher?” “Why did you become a teacher?”
And then that inevitable question shot through her lips. Was I married? My eyes lowered for half a second. I lifted my head in the next second and told them.
“How did you live after your husband died?”
Rahil nudged her only at that question and changed the topic to lunch.
Sara didn’t argue, but added, “I couldn’t imagine living if Rahil died; I would simply kill myself the same day, absolutely, I would.”
Sara ate precisely four times a day. Gluten-free, because one of her doctors was sure she had celiac disease. Breakfast at 8:30 a.m., lunch at 1:30 p.m., a small supper at 5:00 p.m., and dinner at 8:30 p.m. She ate nothing in between and had last eaten candy and chips four years ago. So long, she couldn’t remember what they tasted like. Her rigidity in her diet helped her cope, but her body continued to attack her every day: pains in her back and knees, nausea, and seizures. No doctor could put a finger on it.
Sara’s eyes lit up only when she was asking questions, or when her health was being discussed. At first this made it hard to keep answering. My self-worth would rise, her interest in my life making me swell with stories. It was the specificity in her questions that would make anyone not just want to answer, but to do so articulately, precisely, vulnerably. But when I answered, the light dimmed and I was met only with a sturdy focus on my gaze, her face blank but composed. I realized I needed her eyes to stay on me. I’d answer anything. Deeply personal things I had never even thought of: How did I survive Ketan’s death? How did I break out of the young widow cliché? How did I manage to work? Where were my scars?
Emotional pain can be so severe, so profound, so soul breaking, that it must reflect on the body. But I couldn’t seem to find my scars when I stood in front of the mirror. Perhaps they disguised themselves, moving across my skin like a flea on a cat. Maybe they were in the hollows where my neck meets my ears, or hidden in the curve of my back. Maybe the pain scarred the smile of my armpit, lurked in the quiver of my chin. It must have been there, coded into my consciousness and embedded into my genetic material, ready to pass on to a child one day.
I looked at Sara. Dark skin, high cheekbones, a small forehead, wide shoulders, tiny hands with sea-blue nail polish. Her breasts were large, her cleavage pushing out of her V-neck blouse. Where did her pain reside? Because it was there—you could feel Sara’s pain, it ate at you, chewed your mind as you talked to her and laughed with her. Her pain was unadulterated energy, a ghost that pulled her and the person sitting next to her together. For a whole second, I felt the soul inside my body throb, thudding like a bass speaker at a club. I wanted to gnaw at her skin, stay with her until I inevitably found the purpose of life. This was Sara, from the very first meeting.
Our afternoon wandered into evening. Sara couldn’t drink on her medication, but Rahil poured out whisky for the two of us.
I got the sense that Rahil’s job was stable and that he was high up in the ranks. He talked about the city and its transitions in his years here, roping in quick nostalgic facts and anecdotes. Occasionally he’d throw an innocuous question at me. Sara would use my answers to ask the more probing follow-ups. At some point it became almost a rhythm in the room: superficial question, answer, probing question. We talked in hushed sentences for no reason, tilting back glasses of liquor, swaying to something old and mystical from Rahil’s speakers. Cloistered, safe, but at risk, like it was a night at our neighborhood speakeasy. We ate dinner together. Incredibly delicious leftovers from the fridge. A mild chicken curry with potatoes, brown rice, a cucumber and tomato salad.
“Know what the secret ingredient is?” Sara asked. “My mother never made just regular chopped salad. She always grated ginger and mixed it in.”
Rahil looked into his food and repeated the word ginger for no reason.
It was six p.m. Tomorrow was Monday, and the amount of work and mundane tasks to come started to magnify and flood my whisky-warmed body. I could have stayed longer. Rahil’s body language was neutral, but Sara’s had become increasingly fidgety. I made my first motions of leaving after she went into the kitchen to refill her glass of water for the second time. When I started to stand up and walk toward the door, Sara’s enthusiasm rose again, sending an odd burst of hope through my gut.
“You have the whole week ahead of you, but we all just had such a connection, we have to meet again,” Sara said. The thrill in her voice was familiar. That thrill that comes when you know you’re only minutes away from being able to retreat into your private space again. The relief that comes from knowing you’re done with the forced smiles and small talk that prolonged social engagement demands. Still, she hugged me earnestly, and I spent most of my hug inhaling her. Rahil gave me a quick side-hug and then stood by the door with his hands in his pockets. They didn’t walk me out to the gate, but they stood at the doorway, staring me out.
From The Body Myth. Used with permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2019 by Rheea Mukherjee.