Lisa Ray in a heart-to-heart on life after cancer, ahead of a new web series and tell-all memoir
You might have a difficult time thinking straight the next time you see Lisa Ray on screen. The Canadian-Indian actor is set to make her digital debut, reportedly playing a lesbian, in her new web series, 4 More Shots Please!, which releases on Amazon Prime on January 25. Though the actor doesn’t give too many fun details away, she tells us that she believes the project is ‘revolutionary’ not just for its content, but because the women called the shots all the way. In stark contrast to this fun show about the lives of four Indian urban women is her deeply personal memoir titled Close to the Bone — a play on words around her struggles with blood cancer, which is slated to release in May later this year.
The 46-year-old might want to consider adding life coach to the list too, we think! We learn lessons on love, life and even unconventional lullabies — from the new mother of two daughters, Sufi and Soleil.
2018 has been a rollercoaster of a year for you with the book in the works, and becoming a new mother — take us through the highlights, the ups and downs, and your best memories.
Indeed. Packing up my babies at three weeks, and driving three hours through the Caucasus mountains of Georgia — unfamiliar territory — to a beautiful hotel in Kazbegi is a highlight. Everything about that trip was magical, and it tested my spirit of adventure, and my faith in life. Fortunately, all those elements are alive in me still.
Firstly, entwined in every threshold I cross, is gratitude. Expansive gratitude. I need to articulate it regularly, because even though I have a lot of reasons to be grateful, we all forget, in the flow and pressures of everyday life. For me, not only every year, but every moment is a milestone after having been diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in 2009 and then relapsing in 2012. If I tried to live my best life with effort and struggle before, post-cancer, I live my best life by alignment and intention — and the struggle simply drops away.
The year 2018 was a series of birthings. My babies are the greatest birthing of the last year, followed by the book. And a commitment to living life invested in every single experience and moment. I like to believe it’s not only about highlights, but communication, commitment and continued candidness — these are my guiding principles.
Read More; Lisa Ray has twins through surrogacy.
Communication as a guiding principle — how does that work?
I don’t associate with ‘actor’, in fact. My inner circle understands that my paramount form of creative expression has always been words. Words dance like small butterflies in my head all the time, and I process everything I see through sentences in my mind.
I wrote the Yellow Diaries to chronicle what I was going through, during my cancer diagnosis. I have countless journals. Some of my poetry was published in the wonderful literary publication, I have fought — both with myself and with others — in order to write a book that is as truthful and reflective of my wild, crazy, precious life. I delivered my manuscript to my publisher, HarperCollins India, the day before my babies were born.
And, I’m always fulfilled by my public talks, crisscrossing India to share my learnings from cancer and life. I was honoured to be awarded the FICCI FLO Cancer Conqueror award. But more than anything, the feeling in a room, when I speak from my heart about my experiences, elevates my soul. I receive so much positive, uplifting energy — my cup is full.
You’ve said in some interviews that you’ve been looking at the world through the lens of your baby girls. How has this shifted your perspective?
You know, I’ve been a seeker for much of my life, challenging and chasing a different destiny, one that took me far from marriage and motherhood. I was trying to cultivate awareness, and still all my thoughts. So, the journey to motherhood meant me re-examining all those old beliefs — that motherhood is not for me, it would make me ‘boring’, I’ll be tied down — and daring to drop my old conditioned script. My husband (Jason Dehni) helped a lot with this. Now that my babies are here — all I had been seeking is there in their eyes. It’s just there — all the answers. I am brought into the moment. When Sufi examines her little fingers, I drop my concerns and petty issues, and I’m there with her, gazing at those little fists. Everything else fades away. Except, love.
You’ve called Sufi a future CEO and Soleil a poet. That’s so much deeper than goo-goo gaga. Tell us about a day in your life with the kids.
Sufi is willful already. She came out of the womb that way. She has a mechanical mind — she likes to pick up things, turn them around and pick them apart. You can’t convince her to do anything without her consent. I love her unshakeable sense of self. Soleil also has a natural curiosity about the world, but she prefers to gaze at the sky, the clouds and the leaves with a dreamy look. That’s why I call her my poet. Of course, I’m projecting adult qualities on to them, so in reality, I want to ensure they evolve and grow to be who they are meant to be — without the pressure of conforming or achieving what the world expects. Maybe they will both turn out to be rebels. Even if they turn out to be actuaries or financial executives — which, I can’t lie, horrifies me on a deep level — I’ll do my best to not stand in their way, and encourage their interests and passions.
How has motherhood changed you?
My children are a mirror of my forgotten self. When my babies hold my face in their tiny hands, tangle their fingers in my hair and babble, they are telling me a story in their own language. I have to slow down, willfully still myself and match my rhythm to theirs. The sense of wonder they experience about every little thing is a gift.
We heard you gifted yourself a tech detox for Christmas. What was that like?
Best thing I’ve ever done. I normally go on a retreat twice a year — I have some favourite healing centres like Kamalaya in Koh Samui, Vana in Dehradun, Atmantan in Mulshi or up to the mountains in Dharamsala. I always try to minimise my tech usage. Many wise guides or meditation teachers in today’s world, in particular, advise limiting exposure to news headlines. This constant exposure to negativity increases cortisol, the stress hormone, which triggers a fight or flight reaction in our biochemistry. Me, I simply don’t need it. I’m retraining my system to shift from FOMO: Fear of Missing Out to JOMO: The Joy of Missing Out.
What is currently on your reading list?
The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary, Kamila Shamshie’s Home Fire, The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, Change Makers by Mallika Kapur and Gayatri Rangachari Shah, The Queen of Jasmine Country by Sharanya Manivannan, The Rabbit and the Squirrel by Siddharth Sanghvi and Girls are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi.
One baby product that is proving to make life a whole easier.
Nestilo baby nests by Indian brand Masilo was a complete lifesaver when Souffle were newborns in Tbilisi. Oh, and good old fashioned baby oil massage, Indian style! When we were in Mumbai in December, my close friend Dipika Agarwal hired a maalishwali to give them massage and baths. They began acting like spa clients near the end of the week, laying their hands beneath their chins and grunting in appreciation.
Do you have a go-to song to put them to sleep?
When they were very tiny in Tbilisi, I had my nanny turn on the vacuum cleaner. That would soothe them. And when they became really inconsolable, I would strap them into their baby carriers, and my nanny and I would walk down the street to a local pub. In the middle of the ruckus of rowdy diners, they would both close their eyes and go to sleep. I joked with the owner about moving my bed behind the bar.
Currently, it’s Aye Khuku Aye, a vintage Bengali song by my father’s favourite singer, Hemanta Mukherjee. We put it on loop when their bedtime approaches and they begin to rub their eyes with tiny fists. The lyrics never fail to make me slightly tear — it’s all about a daughter longing for her father and childhood, and puts Souffle into a deep sleep within minutes.
If you were to give yourself one word to live by in 2019 — what would it be?
‘Men who change diapers, change the world’ is embroidered on the burp cloth your husband uses for your kids. We love that! What are some everyday ways that women can weave in a reminder of equality of the sexes, of gender roles in our lives — that are light, reassuring and affirming — much like this one.
Ha ha! That’s a really good question. In the cookies of life, daughters are the chocolate chips. Daughters grow up to call the shots post-cancer when daddies remind them never to settle for anything less. Any man can be a father but it takes someone special to be a diaper-changing dad.
What are your plans for the year — resolutions, new projects...
For the New Year, besides my commitment to my family, my book will be one of my primary areas of focus. I want to begin writing the next one as well. And then, the next one.
Professionally, I shot for what I believe is a revolutionary Amazon Prime series last year (she plays a closet lesbian on the show) called 4 More Shots Please! which will release end of January. The entire production and almost entire cast is female. Women calling the shots.
I loved every moment. I’m also participating in an interesting Canadian show called Canada Reads this year. A month in Boston with Souffle (a fond pet name she has coined for Sufi and Soleil combined) is planned. I want to climb mountains with them. Savour. I look forward to living in the flow.
We love the title of your memoir: Close to the Bone. Take us through that journey...
I was approached to write about my cancer experiences by HarperCollins Canada years ago, just after announcing my diagnosis.
I realised that just like interlocking pieces of a puzzle, I could not separate my disease from the events of my life, and so it became a memoir. I remember submitting the manuscript to my publisher and then going on a silent retreat.
In the middle of meditation, a voice spoke to me loud and clear as a bell: ‘It’s not ready. This is not the final story’. I actually ran down a dirt road to make a call to my lit agent to pull the manuscript.
Post that, I sat on the manuscript for a long time. I met my husband, relapsed in 2012, embarked on an even deeper healing journey, participated in a clinical trial, moved to Hong Kong, set up a home in Mumbai again and… well you get the idea. Then I met Jayapriya Vasudevan, who simply understood me, what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. She understood the memoir was not merely about telling my story, but also about launching myself as a writer. She became my new agent, the manuscript was sent to Diya Kar Hazra at HarperCollins, and she and her team also extended their support and empathy for me and the book. And, we find ourselves here now.
Which was the hardest chapter to write?
Certain portions flowed. I didn’t think in terms of chapters, but timelines. I think recounting my early days in Mumbai in the 1990s — the height of my popularity, but the lowest points of my personal life — was tough.
Lisa’s powerful message to herself for 2019:
‘Reconfiguring my sense of what is big and important in order to savour the ordinary. Because everyone must know that’s where the magic lies. Beauty doesn’t merely lie in an attractive face, but in recognising the effort it takes to move from the surface of existence to the centre. That’s what I’ve been playing with my whole life. A pathless path. Cancer played its part, taking on the role of a symbol for all that was wrong with my life; the way I had numbed myself in order to ignore pain and trauma. My half-life. When the cells in my body betrayed me, that was the start of my love story. I walked down aisles and corridors, glancing at faces observing my hairless head and I fell in love with myself. The scenery changes but the story continues. Because I knew life was not done with me.
I told myself that everyday, slid my hands over my body like it was a rare book. Because of cancer, life sticks to my skin. My cheeks are pink and I have a hard time disguising joy. But if you still want to see me in a single dimension, as that actress or model who was popular once upon a time and got cancer, I will not argue with you. I will invite you to still your pulse and look deep, but I won’t give you the gift of my wild, knowing heart.’
In the last few months, Manisha Koirala and Sonali Bendre have also been in the spotlight because of their cancer stories — and you have taken to social media to show your support. Would you share some thoughts for the woman sitting in a hospital room with her diagnosis, who may not be in the public eye, and importantly, may not have a sturdy support system?
Truthfully, I am resistant to giving advice. I believe everyone is on a deeply personal journey. But of course, when it comes to cancer, I hope I can convey that a life beyond the diagnosis is possible. Educate yourself on the disease, if you don’t have a strong support system, reach out to a patient’s support group — they are blossoming now in India. When you need to — cry, express your emotion, it doesn’t make you weak. But if you don’t ask for help — you won’t get it. It was a big lesson for me. I also say: become the CEO of your health and healing: delegate health providers in all realms, even beyond the traditionally allopathic framework, to help you heal. Ayurveda, homeopathy, meditation — all played a role in my healing. Don’t ignore nutrition and your attitude. Try to see the lessons in the difficulties. Charlie Chaplin said, ‘Nothing is permanent in this world, not even our sorrows’.
Give us your thoughts on writing your life’s next chapter.
Set your intention, and then set it free. We can’t control anything, but our beliefs and thoughts, and that’s what will define our next chapter. Don’t struggle, have faith, work hard, but in the end, let go. I have come to believe finding contentment in the here and now is the key to finding lasting happiness and peace.
Close to the Bone, published by HarperCollins India, to be out in May. Rs 599.
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