Home >Lounge >Features >Lisa Ray 2.0: The making of a writer

Lisa Ray is in a flowing white summer dress, barefoot. One moment she is comfortably ensconced on a couch, the next she’s flitting between rooms, making tea and telling her stories. At 47, Ray looks somewhat different from the teenage supermodel who graced the covers of fashion magazines through the 1990s, but she is more comfortable in her own skin than she has ever been. Every time our photographer trains the camera on her, years of practice come into play and her green eyes look into the lens, unflinching. She exudes a youthful exuberance, bursting into giggles every time her husband, Jason Dehni, enters the room carrying one of the many phones she keeps misplacing.

It is a sun-dappled afternoon in a terrace apartment in Mumbai’s Bandra West. It has been two days since she arrived from Hong Kong, where she currently lives with her husband and 10-month-old twin daughters, yet she owns the space completely. It feels like a lived-in home and one that has been built over a lifetime. The minimal white furniture, endless stacks of books and jazz records, potted lime trees and champa plants seem like an extension of Ray’s aura, which is almost cat-like and serene.

“This idea of being settled in one place is very overrated, especially today when there is so much migration in the world," says Ray. “Maybe we are culturally conditioned to think that we have to find one place that is home. She describes herself as someone who is very adaptable and can create the trappings of a home wherever she is. “Home is a feeling within me," she says.

“But in reality there are very few places that I feel connected to. India is one of them and that is why I keep coming back here," she says. “Now I am a mother and am supposed to be more rooted, yet that impulse of moving hasn’t gone. So while the idea of home often flummoxes me, I am also willing to embrace that about myself."

As a teenager, Ray found a role model in the French actor Isabelle Adjani. A throwaway line in an article about the actor in the Vogue magazine stayed with her. It was a quote by one of Adjani’s friends: “Isabelle is like a cat…. Wherever she goes, she sets up in a corner and makes it her own. And one day you wake up and she’s gone."

Ray writes in her memoir, Close To The Bone: “I also wanted to be like a cat with no fixed address, crashing in corners and deciding when it was time to move on. Finally a version of life that transformed longing into experience, a way to touch the bright places."

This childhood wish would be the road map for her future. Ray travelled the world in search of these bright places. She navigated the different chapters in her life—as the half-Polish, half-Bengali high-school student in Toronto finding herself and searching for revelations; as the young girl who made a dazzling entry into Mumbai’s fashion industry, in 1991, with her very first photoshoot in a fire-engine red swimsuit; as one of India’s first supermodels in the 1990s; as the daughter who struggled with personal tragedies; as the lover who gave her heart with abandon; as the actor who trained herself to use her body, voice and personality to inhabit different characters; as a woman who battled a rare blood cancer and emerged a survivor; as a mother who brought conversations about female fertility and surrogacy out in the open. And through it all, she remained the eternal outsider, dipping in and out of the worlds she entered.

Lisa Ray is still a natural when it comes to facing the camera
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Lisa Ray is still a natural when it comes to facing the camera

“If I had to go back to my 16-year-old self and give her some advice, I would tell her to stay on course and not change one thing," she says of her unusual journey, with ups and downs that have given her a story worth telling.

Ray has been a writer-in-waiting for a long time, scribbling her thoughts and observations in journals, notes on her phone, paper napkins and a blog. However, a memoir wasn’t the first book she had imagined writing. “I get very uncomfortable with the idea of this book being called a memoir because it has long been in the works," she says. “I have always kept journals and I have always written, so the question is, do you become a writer when you publish or are you a writer because you write?"

Ray has learnt how to ace the curveballs of life, sometimes by following her instinct and sometimes through sheer luck. She moved to India as an 18-year-old and started a career which would soon make her one of the most recognizable faces of the time. Yet, this period would be connected with a terrible car accident which rendered her mother a paraplegic. She writes in Close To The Bone: “The birth of my success would forever be linked in my mind to the accident. You might say my career in India began on the edge of a sword: one side fame and on the other side, grief."

Tragedy and serendipity were once again twinned when Ray’s diagnosis with multiple myeloma at the age of 37 was followed by a book deal.

She challenged the silence and taboos around cancer after she went public about her battles with the disease in her blog, The Yellow Diaries. In her first entry on 7 September 2009, she wrote:

“A few months ago my bone marrow started sending me messages.... It’s true the deepest crises are moments of great opportunity. An event that shocks you into seeing with the heart. A place from which to combine survival and celebration.... I’m not sure why I am writing and that’s probably the best beginning.... Maybe I’m finally listening to my marrow."

Her story made it to the national newspapers in India, for Ray was among the first celebrities to talk openly about the disease. Soon after, HarperCollins Canada approached her to write a memoir. “Initially, I hesitated but then I thought I might have something to say and so I fell in with writing that first book in late 2010. I started writing and finished it under some pressure, both internal and external, handed it to my editor and went off on a retreat in Vermont. And while I was there I had an instinctive reaction. I wrote to them saying I wanted to withdraw the manuscript because this was not the book I wanted to write," she says. For her, the book was about finding an authentic voice, and the form it was in went against this idea. So she went back to the drawing board, picked her own manuscript to pieces and sat down to rewrite it.

While her experience with cancer acted as the trigger for the book, Ray feels she needed more time to digest that experience as well as process her entire life. “The essence of my experience with cancer has been trying to trace it back to the roots. I realized I couldn’t tell the story of my cancer in isolation from the rest of my life. That, in a nutshell, is why I chose to write a memoir," she says.

While writing it, she got married to Dehni, her cancer relapsed, she fought it, went into remission, had her twins. All this was material enough for another book, but, instead, Ray used these experiences as a prism through which she revisited her earlier life. “The journey of my life deepened in those years. And it was in my phase of rewriting my memoir that I was able to see the girl in that journey with compassion, something that was not there in the first draft," says Ray. “At the same time, I was to able to see my life with a sense of humour, a sense of irony, and a dispassionate distance that I needed."

Ray describes this as a difficult process because she had to unlearn old thought patterns. “There was a period of my life where I used to think I was special. The way I entered the industry was quite fantastic and I used to think I was really quite cool and it took these years of writing and rewriting to slough away that feeling."

For Ray, an interesting part of the writing process was to remove the vicarious thrill from her own life’s trajectory and get a sense of the larger picture. In order to do so, she referred to her journal entries and copies of magazine and newspaper cuttings to place herself in certain periods and follow “sense memories". She recalled the smells and feel of specific places like Pali Market in Mumbai, which she first visited as an 18-year-old. “I had the benefit of training as an actor and I am able to sense memory triggers like an old Stardust magazine or clippings of a photoshoot from the early 1990s to put me back in that place and in the India of those days. In a way, I was reading about myself to go back to myself," she says.

And that is what makes Lisa Ray’s story more than just a celebrity autobiography. Her book is situated within a larger context of a newly-liberalized India. This is a story set in the Mumbai of the 1990s, a city coming into its own and accepting its own contradictions of the high life and harsh struggles.

Lisa Ray shares a light moment with her husband Jason Dehni
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Lisa Ray shares a light moment with her husband Jason Dehni

“I have come to India and left so many times and I have some distance from the everyday grind to see a whole spectrum of change in the country from the early 1990s to now," she says. It is from this broad spectrum that Ray funnels her story, placing it in the glamour world of Mumbai of that era—a time that belonged to a generation of individualistic supermodels, bratty star kids, eclectic socialities and creative admen.While living that life, she was also a canny observer of it. “I always felt that I would go into a profession that would help cultivate the part of me which was the outsider looking in and it certainly doesn’t seem like that. Instead, here I was in a profession where I was being observed instead," she says.

“With specific reference to the fashion industry, I feel that the digital age we live in is so much about the here and now that it has left little room for what came before. For whatever it is worth, that generation of the 1990s, especially the women, built the foundation that a lot of female actors today are using to break boundaries. We were not trying to be rebels in a conscious way. Rather, we were trying to live lives that were a full expression of who we were and also trying to find our voice in that era," she says, adding that she and other women of her generation, like Mehr Jessia, Madhu Sapre, Sheetal Mallar and Malaika Arora, were not branding themselves feminists or fitting definite categories.

She points out that it was a time when today’s more efficient marketing machinery, which creates a more definite identity for celebrities, did not exist. “There is a big filter and all the irregularities that make us quirky, human or odd have been smoothened out. Whether it is the fashion industry or any other aspect of this world, it is far more cookie-cutter," says Ray.

Ray’s memoir transcends a personal narrative to become the story of an Everywoman who travels the world only to return to her own self. Each chapter is a microcosm of society. Her tortured relationship with food expands into larger questions and issues related to eating and body dysmorphic disorders. The rigorous training Ray underwent to inhabit the character of the young widow Kalyani in Deepa Mehta’s Water included spending time with widows in Vrindavan and looked at their institutionalized oppression. Her gruelling audition for the role of a Bond girl as well as a few other high-budget films is a window into Hollywood from the 1990s to the late 2000s, with its big studio politics and A-list parties. Ray’s spiritual journey was a larger exploration of the ideas of healing and catharsis routed via Buddhism, Osho meditation and Hindu rituals.

“I know this is deeply personal material that I own and I have tried to tell my story in a way that makes sense to me as a writer. I am trying to celebrate my debut as a writer but am also terrified of putting that much of myself out there. However, having dealt with cancer, I have to say it doesn’t faze me nearly as much as it could have before," she says with a smile.

Ray is clear that she did not want her book to be a cancer memoir, even though Close To The Bone does deal with the disease in a personal and life-affirming way. “On a selfish level—since I wanted this book to be my writing debut—it couldn’t possibly be a book about cancer alone. That was one piece of my life, and in thinking about the cancer, I had to write about the full breadth of my life. I want it to be out there that this is not a cancer memoir, though it covers the disease. If a patient is looking for a cancer memoir, I don’t want them to be misguided and try to look for something in this book that is not there," she says.

She does believe, though, that she needs to write a cancer book for those who have experienced the disease in any way. She believes cancer needs to be spoken about more, especially in India. “There is so much work to be done in this field. It is sometimes even enough to own it and say ‘I had cancer’ and I want to be able to encourage other people to do so. And my cancer memoir will be a very different book from this one. It will be about my healing journey. That book will actually start where this one ends."

Ray has found her spiritual fulcrum and healed twice from cancer. Her own path to wellness has been through a good diet, yoga, meditation practices and looking inwards for strength. In a 2018 article in Elle magazine, she described wellness as a disruptive force which didn’t always translate into a relaxed or quiet version of oneself. She wrote: “I don’t think of myself as a semi-success on the health spectrum because I’m living with a disease, but a gundi of good health, a wild woman of wellness, the CEO of SLA (Save Lisa’s Ass)."

Today, she carries these experiences and travels the world inspiring others to fight the disease and remake themselves from its ravages. With the release of her book on 20 May, she will remake herself yet again—as a writer.

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