Lisa Ray’s first book, Close To The Bone, is anything but a cancer memoir. Cancer can obliterate any identity other than that of a cancer survivor, at least in the minds of those who know the person. Ray was the first Indian from the glamour industry who shared her journey with the disease, even her steroid-fuelled “moon face" with the world, and is therefore known as one of those supercharged, inspiring survivors who continue to be associated with cancer long after she has left the disease behind.

The book brings alive a life in entirety. Ray drifts in and out of black holes, sometimes loathing herself, sometimes blissfully free of self-pity, throughout the narrative, which begins with her childhood in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Toronto and ends with a fairy-tale marriage to management consultant Jason Dehni after healing from cancer.

Ray really can write, and that makes it an actor-model memoir that doesn’t depend entirely on anecdotal, name-dropping gloat—it reminded me of the books written by British actor Rupert Everett, also a great writer, but who writes with more savage glee. Memories do solidify into anecdotes, as we, and all memoirists, know, and good memoirs have intricate architecture and ideas around anecdotes. Their truth is not sullied by a lack of imagination.

Ray’s book is one of those good memoirs. She has robust characters and there are details and events that build the book’s architecture, with a lot of literary ambition. Close To The Bone is a book about glamour and its dangers, thrills and possible disconnection from real life—anyone who enjoys peeking behind the curtain of celebrity life will love it. Ray’s struggles with loss and suffering, which she narrates with a grim hilarity, are equally absorbing.

What holds all the narrative snapshots together is the quality of her writing. We meet Ray in her childhood, with her Bengali father, Polish mother and grandmother, already a restless soul: “The afternoons spent in pursuit of my Granny’s earthly pleasures were long. Sometimes I would get weary, pounding the pavement after my Nani, as she’d swan from store to store. I remember getting so tired that I dropped in the street, my princess skirt fanning out around my thighs as I squatted. This particular position irritated her; she would tug me up, with a Polish reprimand."

Her adolescence was spent reading—an interest she says she inherited from her father—“morose Russian literature" and a lot of other literary fiction. She struggled to eat because she had turned bulimic by the time she was barely a teenager. On an India trip, Ray was introduced by someone to Maureen Wadia, editor of Gladrags, who had launched many faces in the world of fashion. Ray did a shoot for Gladrags in 1991, and one of the photographs was of her in a red swimsuit. It made her famous.

A bulk of the book is about her life as a model in Mumbai in the early 1990s—a lot of her time spent with people from the world of fashion and advertising at A.D. Singh’s Ripon Club in south Mumbai’s Flora Fountain area, feting themselves with alcohol, live jazz and mutual admiration: “I would soon find myself in a jumble of exiles—from Steve McCurry to the scandal-linked Pamella Bordes—at his (designer James Ferreira’s) Khotachiwadi Lane cottage, lounging on antique carved furniture, listening to James’ latest antics." She talks about “Hepburnish" Mehr Jessia, Ferreira and photographer Farrokh Chothia, her close friends, about Sanjay Dutt, who pursued her for a film that led to an escalating rumour about an affair with the star and a mention in Stardust magazine’s then-famous gossip column, Neeta’s Natter. There are other tidbits, like the industrialist family’s scion with a shoe fetish.

Close To The Bone: HarperCollins India; 412 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599 .
Close To The Bone: HarperCollins India; 412 pages; 599 .

She looks back at herself in the early 1990s in Mumbai, a city just wounded by bomb blasts and communal tension, almost with disbelief: “Instead of finding a safe way to scream, a way to release the city’s collective angst, we continued to come together in an endless pageant of excess to lose ourselves. It could have been any city, but my experience of this ritual played out in Bombay."

Ray’s tryst with film, Deepa Mehta’s Water and a couple of Bollywood films, coincided with continued struggles with bulimia and a quest for God and spiritual awakening, until she lost her mother in late 2008, and, in 2009, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. She wrote The Yellow Diaries, a blog which chronicled the torment of undergoing treatment for cancer. In the book, she writes about cancer with a cool objectivity, but with all the harrowing details. During the process of a stem-cell transplant, a person’s white blood cell count plummets to zero, and if lucky, like Ray was, slowly works its way up to normal. I froze in parts, having gone through chemotherapy myself. The zany, transcendent humour in the last few chapters of the book devoted to her cancer experience goes well with the earnest realization that it had opened new, spiritual windows in her. Cancer almost feels like the inevitable culmination of her life as, in her words, a “crisis junkie".

Close To The Bone is written with the awareness that the written word is the only kind of spotlight that really lasts. There are some seriously good books ahead from Lisa Ray if she takes herself seriously enough to write them.

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