When Lisa Ray – actor, model, television host, philanthropist, social activist – walked on to the stage on day three of Sahitya AajTak 2019, in New Delhi, the first thing that grabbed our attention was her white sneakers peeking from below that black saree she had dropped. Yes, a woman who has inspired endless people ever since she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma – a rare form of incurable and fatal cancer – in 2009, just gave us some fashion goals, too!
At Sahitya AajTak, however, we were to meet the author of the book, Close To The Bone, released in May 2019. From what led her to a career in modelling to an accident that literally changed her life to being diagnosed with cancer, Lisa’s book is nothing short of a journey. In a rather informative session, we managed to walk that journey with Lisa Ray. Excerpts from the session, titled: Close To The Bone.
ON WHAT LED ME TO WRITE THE BOOK
We have a tendency to pigeonhole people. Because I have been in front of the camera since I was 16, in a sense I’ve always had a double life. My career was an accident. As a result of that, I had to have a public, private and a secret life. I needed to bring all those together and be cohesive. I wasn’t able to do that when I was younger. And that was the motivation behind the book. The title was a metaphor Close To The Bone – for the cancer I was diagnosed with, but also with being stripped away of the flesh, and being bare. It took me 20 years to be truly honest with myself, but I always wanted to be truly me. I was a glamorous figure, a sex symbol, but while I was at the height of fame, I was experiencing the lowest lows. I had anorexia, bulimia, I hated myself. Going through these extreme experiences made me an investigator of life. I had fame, money, reputation everything the society tells you you need to be happy. Yet I wasn’t. That’s what lead me to write the book.
ON THE WORST THINGS I’VE HEARD ABOUT MYSELF
Oh, many! The worst thing in the world is someone else telling you who you are. But none of that bothered me. It only helped me redefine success and understand what life is all about.
ON BEING AN INTROVERT
A friend of mine once called me the runaway model. It was my way of moderating myself – because I’m an introvert and I get overwhelmed. We introverts get drained when we’re around too many people. Then we need to get away. Hence I would escape to Dharamshala. I was also living through an era 90s when if you had an aura of mystery, it worked for you. Which is why, even as I was escaping the public eye, people always remembered me. In the time of social media today, it’s different. There’s no mystery left. We know what Deepika Padukone is having for lunch. Earlier stars were an enigma and today I feel that is lost.
ON MY LOVE FOR BOMBAY
It’s the city that made me, broke me, rebuild me. It helped me confront myself. Honestly, it’s not the city, but the qualities of mine that came out while navigating the city. I was there from 16-30. Because of Bombay, I have been able to set my own path.
I would fall in love irrationally, I have been criticised for it, but I don’t regret it. Because that made me what I am. The search for love, through all the heartbreaks, has brought me to where I am today. I realised all the love I needed is actually inside me. If I hadn’t sampled the buffet, I wouldn’t have been what I am today. Buddha too had to experience the worldly desires to transcend them. I am complete today, therefore I can offer love. And I can say I have found love in Jason. You know, we have a thing at home that there’s Lisa, there’s Jason, and then there’s us. We maintain that individuality along.
ON MY PARENTS
When we’re young, we feel that we’re the rebels, and no one can understand us. But I got all my rebellious spirit from my parents. My dad wAs a Bengali, living in Shyambazaar in Kolkata, he met my mother on a student exchange in Warsaw University. She was a Polish who couldn’t speak in Bengali, and he was Bengali who didn’t speak Polish. And this was in the 1960s. They kept in touch over 3 years after they met, and this was despite the fact that he had a Brahmin bride waiting for him in Kolkata. They had to defy their families. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them! To leave everything you know behind and bravely follow love. Finally, they left everything and landed up in Canada with three suitcases. Now, I change cities too. I realise that that impulse comes from them. I take responsibility for my decision. So my rebellious spirit has come from them.
ON THE ACCIDENT THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
My family and I were on vacation in Bombay in 1991, someone spotted me and asked if I wanted to become a model. My curiosity led me to say yes. I ended up in a photo studio where I shot a bunch of pictures. I met Maureen Wadia after that with all those pictures. And then, we left for Canada. Soon after we were back in Canada, my family and I met with an accident and my mom lost the ability to walk in that accident. Call it luck, but I was supposed to be sitting where my mom was sitting in the car. We had exchanged our seats. That was supposed to be me in place of my mother. And then, on the other end of the world in India, my image was released on the cover of Gladrags magazine. So, my career started on the edge of a blade. One end was fame and on the other end was trauma.
ON BEING DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER
My doctor was scared because after he announced to me that I had multiple myeloma, I didn’t react. Even though he said it was incurable and fatal. In my mind, I was thinking that my body has been trying to give me signals for months, and I was ignoring them. Then I got this strongest possible message. Intuitively, I knew something was wrong. But I didn’t have the courage to do anything, because I was trained to ignore what my body was telling me. In our profession, you can’t go home when you’re sick. You pop medicines and get on with work. In addition, I hadn’t really dealt with the trauma of the accident I was in. What do we do when we don’t want to face something? We keep busy. I did that. Until finally I had to stop, listen to my body, heal and make changes. In a strange way, I realised it was a time of reckoning. I knew it wasn’t the end of me, I knew I wasn’t going to die, but I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
ON THE PROCESS OF WRITING
I believe that I’ve always been a writer. Everything else was a diversion my acting and modelling career. To be a writer, you have to own it. It’s not about being published, yes, it’s the end goal. You have to love reading, words, language. Writing is a calling, it’s a vocation. It’s not how much time you spend on the desk, but how much time you spend in the mind frame. You have to be disciplined too. Deadlines are scary but a good thing. There are times when my husband (Jason) wakes up at three and finds me writing. Basically you have to treat writing with the dedication any other job requires. Carry a notebook or a phone where you can note down every thought that pops into your head. And remember that your biggest enemy is perfection.