Lisa Ray: A Journey That Embraces Challenges, Cultures, And Continents
Canadian-born Lisa Ray was my neighbour. Lisa was every photographer’s delight; not just the girl next door but the girl on top, of things that mattered. Her whirlwind schedule was just another day’s work for the model-actor. My connection with the Rays began through our common love: food, as we very often shared the offerings of our kitchens. They would excitedly call me to partake of the delicious raja rani Bengali curry, bhindi, sago or lemon grass chai or give me a tip on how to set curd perfectly.
On many occasions, I saw a young Lisa’s nose buried in a book. The sound of happy squeals would emerge from her home every now and then when Papa Ray and Lisa bought home a new title that had hit the bookshelf. Things began to slip into a predictable pattern but Lisa’s thirst for more meaningful avenues grew so she moved to the UK to pursue theatre. Regular news snippets of her role in Deepa Nair’s Oscar-nominated Water kept us abreast of her successful career trajectory. And the Rays soon wound up their home in Mumbai but stayed in touch via the occasional phone call.
Just when Lisa’s career was going strong, I was informed that she had been diagnosed with a rare blood malignancy. But she wasn’t one to lament her fate and it was inspiring to see her invoke her inner resources to defy the dreaded disease. The C taboo’s dark associations were transfused with her grit and as she made peace with her reality; she birthed hope. She was shortlisted for a clinical trial for treating the malignancy. Emerging victorious with her short curly mane post chemo, she soon began campaigning for funds for the cause and sought to make impactful appearances as an anchor on television in both India and Canada.
Soon, she married the love of her life, an investment banker named Jason. His relocation from the US took them to Asia resulting in Lisa shuttling between her beloved city, Mumbai, her father in Canada, her in-laws in Greece and her husband in Hong Kong over the weekends. The birth of her twins Sufi and Soliel through surrogacy – and her candour about it on social media – held out hope to childless couples.
When I got in touch with Lisa recently about her book Close to the Bone, she referred to it as her third birthing, saying, “I am a writer. I don’t think of myself as an actor or model or any other label that’s been stuck on me. I have been a passionate reader since I can remember and covertly scribbled notes my whole life. Poetry is life itself. It takes you from the periphery of existence to its essence.” Close to the Bone is a brutally honest insight into what she holds close to her heart. It presents Lisa the introvert, who gracefully coped with the hand that life dealt her. For her, writing about it was almost cathartic. So, here is Lisa in first person – her words present an inspiring journey that has spanned cultures, countries and continents.
Childhood, the growing years
Growing up in Canada in the ’70s in a mostly white neighbourhood was challenging for a girl of mixed blood. There was no one like me and there were no role models in cultural conversation either. But when people asked me ‘What are you?’ I would defiantly answer ‘I’m Indian!’ or even better, I borrowed a phrase I had heard — “I’m an Indian flower child!’ Somehow I was more aligned to my Subcontinental bloodline, even though my maternal grandmother brought me up for the first few years of my life, and Polish was my first language.
As a family, we were close to nature. In the summer, my mother would drive me out to a farmland outside Toronto, called Holland Marsh, where I’d put on gumboots and stomp after her into the fields with a pitchfork. When I look back now, my mom was the original queen of clean eating, much before the concept entered popular culture.
We made a trip to Kolkata every second year during the monsoons where I was surrounded by cousins and aunts and pulled into the bosom of a very different family life. I was always spiritually inclined and immersed myself in Hinduism even though my family never forced it on me.
Life as an only child
I used to long for a sibling. I remember when I was about seven or eight years old, my mother came to me with a mysterious smile, saying that she had a big surprise in store. I thought she was pregnant and I would have a sister like all my friends. Turned out, I had won the leadership award at my school. I was devastated.
For much of my childhood, I had an imaginary friend called Cindy whom I spoke to in long, rambling monologues. But today, I appreciate the benefits of having been an only child: my imaginative life, the long hours spent reading and writing on a purple shag rug and my independent spirit. I am, by nature, an introvert and am content to spend solitary hours on my own. In fact, being around too many people stresses me out.
A marriage of cultures: Bengali dad and Polish mum
Their romance was an extraordinary one. My father was studying for his PhD in England – he was shy, intellectual, and rather oblivious of his striking good looks. One summer, he travelled through the eastern bloc countries on an Indian student cultural exchange, singing Tagore sangeet and exchanging views on socialism and Marxism. On his last evening in Warsaw, he met my mother at a university dance. She was blonde, blue-eyed and ethereal. He bought her an alcoholic drink thinking she would appreciate it, believing that all European women like to drink, but my mother was a teetotaler and this was just one of the many ways in which she was a stranger to her own culture. They kept in touch, writing to each other for a year before they could meet again. On that visit, they decided to get married. My father had a bride chosen for him back in Kolkata, but he had a thirst for a different sort of life and my mother sealed the decision for him: he would never return to live in the country of his birth, until I was born. My parents defied many societal conventions for that time and I think that the grace and fire they passed on to me continues to course through my veins.
The accident and coping with it
My mother and I switched seats at the last possible moment before driving home from a picnic outside Toronto. On that ride home we had a terrible car accident; my mom was flung from the car and snapped her spine. It shattered my cosy existence and it was the first time I encountered real pain and trauma.
At the same time, on the other side of the world, my images were released on the cover of a magazine and I became an instant sensation. It was a surreal time in my life and redefined success for me. Even though I was at the height of my fame and desirability, I was wounded and in pain emotionally. We were a close-knit family and I was in denial of my mother’s accident for years. Work was simply a distraction from pain. I was not invested in becoming famous, I simply wanted to escape reality.
Not just relevant but inspirational
I live a bit of a dual existence. There’s my public persona but the day-to-day version of me is dressed down, scrubbed free of make-up, a hippie nomad. I have done numerous spiritual road trips around India to find answers, sat at the feet of masters and teachers, spent considerable time in Pune at the Osho ashram, gone on a six-month meditation retreat in Dharamsala and I will continue to seek, but the wonderful thing about my teachers is they have taught me that all the answers I need are within me.
The other theme of my life is ‘more beautiful for having been broken’. I borrowed this idea from the Japanese tradition kintsugi where cracks in ceramic pots are filled with gold. It makes the object more beautiful than before and celebrates the concept of embracing imperfections.
Going with the flow
I had no issue setting up a life in Tbilisi, Georgia when my girls were born via surrogacy in that country. I had an incredible time immersing myself in the ethos of that city and made good friends, all the while dealing with two newborns. I guess I have good survival instincts. Parachute me into any environment, any place on the planet and I’ll make a life.
I’m a big advocate of conscious reflection. I simply can’t relate to people who need to go out every night, who drown in social obligations. But then, I’m an introvert. I need alone time to recharge.
Cancer, wellness and giving back
I began supporting cancer initiatives while I was in the middle of my treatment. A mentor, Kathy Giusti, who is one of the most influential and successful cancer advocates in the world and who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma a decade before me, said: ‘Your disease is a marathon. Pace yourself. Rebuilding your health will take time. You have time to support the cause but heal yourself first. Put Lisa first.’
That was a wake-up call. I had always put myself last. Cancer was a symbol of all that was unresolved and wrong in my life and triggered the biggest reset. That is the biggest paradox of my life. In a way, a fatal disease saved me.
Close to the bone
I was approached to write about my cancer journey after I announced my diagnosis from the red carpet at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009. I knew it wasn’t the version of my story I wanted to put out there. I was too close to my cancer journey to get perspective. So I sat on the book for years, and finally rewrote it entirely in the last year. The timing is right. Something magical has happened in India in the last few years and women’s narratives are taking centrestage, if you tell your story with authenticity and honesty.
For anyone to be denied the full spectrum of human emotions is harmful. Even sadness and anger must be expressed and embraced. When I was young, I thought I had to hide my sensitivity and vulnerability. I thought those feelings were a weakness and I didn’t have the guts to ask for space and a break when I needed them – when I was feeling overwhelmed from being around people, from being poked and prodded at and having my clothes adjusted during a shoot. I couldn’t self-regulate my emotions, so I would just explode from time to time and disappear for days on end. I once didn’t leave my home in Mumbai for four months.
Mumbai, her home and her anchor
I consider Mumbai my first home. It’s where I spent my formative years; it’s the city that moulded me, built me and broke me. It has given me everything. I’ve been a nomad. Once I left India in 2001, I lived in London, Paris, Milan, New York, Los Angeles, and only returned to Toronto when my mum passed away in 2009. But I am not connected emotionally to any other place the way I am to Mumbai and India. Mumbai is my anchor even though I live in Hong Kong today with my husband and family.