Actor, author, cancer survivor and mother of twins Lisa Ray bares her story – with its little and large successes, failures and leaps of faith.
Actor, columnist, model, social activist, performer, philanthropist, television star and theatre personality – Lisa Ray is all this rolled into one, and then some! She has also made a recent debut as an author. In her touching memoir Close to the Bone (HarperCollins India, 2019), she writes about finding herself, healing from cancer and navigating the world of glamour.
This year, she stars in AR Rahman’s musical 99 Songs and in Season 2 of Four More Shots Please. She’s also working on three more books. We talk to her about her journey so far.
How difficult was it for you to overcome bulimia, anorexia, low self esteem and body-image issues in your formative years?
All these are very much connected with your mental state, and they are very difficult to overcome. The world also doesn’t support your healing, particularly today with the imagery that we see and the beauty standards that women are subjected to. Eating disorders are a menace and very difficult to overcome. It’s also very much an emotional, psychological and mental disease. If you see anyone going through this, I recommend you stage an intervention, because it’s very hard to manage it on your own.
Your memoir swings between two equally fascinating extremes – the glamorous world versus the deeply spiritual – and you’ve been authentic and even compassionately self-critical at times in your recounting of it. How long and what does it take for one to look back with such objectivity at oneself?
To be honest, it was challenging to write a book even though it's one of my greatest accomplishments today. Fortunately, I have kept a lot of diaries my entire life; I have journaled a lot. So, I had some actual material that I could refer to in terms of facts, dates and incidents. My diaries are not necessarily about what happened in a day. I often write about conversations that I hear, maybe about the patterns of a curtain in the room, things like that. It's very sort of impressionistic. It's still very challenging – you have to draw on memory. You're telling it as you remember it, or as you believe the truth to be.
But I also use my training as an actor by applying a particular discipline or technique by which you can actually travel to a particular room or relive an experience using sense, memory and action. That was sometimes painful, and sometimes exhilarating to do. I don’t really see my book as a memoir; I see it as my writing debut. So, the language and the writing is as important as anything else. It’s not just a narrative of my life, and it is talking about my inner life as well. Moving from subject to object is also fairly significant for a woman as well.
What have you learnt about the ‘divine dichotomy’ (the parallel existence of two opposing truths), and of keeping a balance between life’s material and spiritual pursuits?
That’s a great question! We talk about balance in so many contexts in today’s world; it’s a real misnomer. I think there’s no such thing as balance – there are priorities. Life is never perfect, it’s never meant to be. There are forces or circumstances that will take our attention at certain periods of time. It’s like a tide, ebbing and flowing.
We have to be a little gentler with ourselves, and listen to the call. For me, there was a very deep spiritual call at one time and I dedicated myself to that. Today, it is a bit of prioritizing my life as a householder – because I’m a wife and a working mother on top of everything else. My spiritual practices are now integrated into my worldly life. I don’t necessarily have the compulsion anymore to just go off into the mountains like I did literally for six months at some point. But at the same time, that was very valuable in my life, and I’m glad that I did it, because it provided me a foundation from which I can draw on now. I can actually access that peace, because I worked on it already.
So, I don’t think there’s really any formula. My journey has been very instinctive, and I’ve fallen – it’s not even been linear progression. It’s been sometimes, you succeed; sometimes, you don’t. And it's all okay. I think it's more about the acceptance of everything that happens in life.
Please share the most important lesson about love and relationships you’ve learnt in your journey.
I would just say that love is the most important thing. But I would also say that one should be able to step back in order to distinguish love from attachment – two very different things and they are normally entangled in our lives; and when they are entangled, they can create havoc.
In your book, you have described your mother’s passing with such dignity and grace. How did it change you – to see death up so close?
I think I had some preparation for that. I attended a Tibetan Buddhist retreat on death and dying by coincidence a few months before my mum’s passing. So, in a strange way, life prepared me. Obviously, that grief is etched into my soul. I think it will never leave me. I think about it every day. But I think I’ve accepted that as well. I miss her because I’m a mother today and I miss having her around. But I don’t think I miss all the lessons that she’s embedded in me. Whatever she planted in me has now blossomed, flowered and taken fruit.
It takes fearlessness (or is it courage in the face of fear?) to bare your story – with its little and large successes, failures and leaps of faith. At what point in your life did you decide to write and publish a book of your experiences?
I think this book has been in the making for about 35 years—I’m just a very late bloomer! I’ve only ever wanted to write. I mean, circumstances came together. But even writing this book has taken a few false starts and stops. But here we are. Now that I’m on this trajectory, I’m very committed to it.
Wellness gurus say ‘your body is your temple’. What do you think?
It’s sort of a cliché, but I think it definitely works. I think my body is my vehicle to fulfill my purpose, so obviously I do want to take very good care of it.
Please share something about your twins, and what has motherhood taught you?
They are polar opposites of each other and, obviously, I adore them equally. I just want to allow them to flower naturally. I don’t want to impede or try to direct their interests or their personalities. So, that in itself is quite a practice. Motherhood has taught me a lot of patience and love. It’s a beautiful practice of love.
What is your word of advice for them and daughters everywhere?
Don’t let the world define you. Who you are and your self-worth, should not be defined outside of yourself. You are worthy of love always.First published in eShe magazine