Lisa Ray's Close to the Bone is a memoir of surviving cancer — and her quests for home, identity

Close To The Bone is a poignantly crafted memoir by Lisa Ray that goes beyond her battle against cancer, and traces her Polish-Indian roots, and her forays in the worlds of modelling and cinema

Arshia Dhar June 06, 2019 09:12:07 IST
Lisa Ray's Close to the Bone is a memoir of surviving cancer — and her quests for home, identity
  • Actor Lisa Ray debuts as a writer with her memoir, Close to the Bone.

  • The 47-year-old artist opens up about her struggles growing up as a Polish-Indian in Canada

  • In 2009, Ray was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a rare cancer affecting the bone marrow. After being declared cancer-free in 2010, her condition relapsed in 2012.

In 2009, Lisa Ray received a diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma — a rare, incurable type of cancer.

In Ray’s words:

“...(I)t never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get better. Almost as soon as he said cancer (or didn’t), I was framing it as just another adventure in a life that had circled the globe for three decades, plucking one experience after the other like cherries from trees. Now cells in my bones were rampaging, multiplying, squeezing out the red blood cells.

I had become a junior member of the MM cancer club, diagnosed at 37, while the average age is 65. Fatal. Incurable. But I wasn’t scared — not yet, anyway.”

The model-actress-activist immersed herself in Buddhist learning, yoga, and Hindu spirituality soon after her diagnosis. (“Naturally, confronting your own mortality is the greatest adventure you can have in life. There is no other way of wrestling with the fear,” Ray says of that time.) Only days later, an offer to write a book came her way.

The development was typical of Ray’s life, where opportunities have almost always waltzed in holding the hand of some deep sorrow.

For instance, in 1991, weeks after a teenaged Ray had her first major photo-shoot in Bombay — and was featured on the cover of Gladrags magazine — her family was involved in an accident back in Toronto, which left her mother paralysed.

Lisa Rays Close to the Bone is a memoir of surviving cancer  and her quests for home identity

Close to the Bone by Lisa Ray hit bookstores on 20 May

One imagines that this trend — of sorrow manifesting in her life alongside joy — is among the experiences that Ray refers to as “so intimate and metaphysical, so outside the realm of (the) everyday that describing them is sort of a trap for a writer”. But she’s found the words to do so, by placing herself in “that state again and again” for her recently published memoir Close To The Bone.

Ray — the offspring of a charming, practical Polish mother and a quiet, idealistic Bengali father — had a dual life growing up. The predominantly Italian neighbourhood in Toronto where she resided was almost antiseptically pristine and put together, as opposed to the chaos she plunged into every summer in Calcutta. The cacophony and restlessness, all enveloped by the cloying fragrance of mangoes, fit her like a glove.

“Today I derive a sense of strength from straddling my contradictions but for a long time...I was negotiating an identity crisis. Identity and the notion of belonging dogged me, until, through my spiritual inquiry, I changed my framework of life to see something inside everyone that transcends narrow labels and identities,” Ray says. “I think the tribal loyalty to a singular culture is the cause of a lot of problems in the world. We need some questioning outsiders to bring in a fresh perspective.”

Ray herself was something of an ‘outsider’ during her career in the entertainment industry.

She says choosing to be on the ‘periphery gave her a vantage point.

“Of course I’ve worked hard, but I enjoy being on the periphery of things — it gives me more freedom to be myself and not conform to the game,” Ray explains.

For Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005), Ray underwent rigorous acting workshops and lived among the widows of Vrindavan to prepare for her role. Yet, deep down, she hadn’t aspired to be a model or an actor.

“I never longed to be part of the industry. Most of my most fulfilling professional moments came to me via serendipity,” Ray says, adding: “I just went with the flow. There has been no calculation in my career, because what I always longed to do was to write.”

Lisa Rays Close to the Bone is a memoir of surviving cancer  and her quests for home identity

Lisa Ray

In this vein, writing also ‘chose’ Ray, as much as she chose writing. Her journey as a wordsmith has been further enriched by her writer friends like Tishani Doshi, Suketu Mehta, and Siddhartha Sanghvi. “Even my friend Ziya Tong, who I met at a ‘Canada Reads’ panel a few months ago, has published her first book. With humility for all my support and the guidance of the muses, I hope to dedicate myself to full time writing soon,” she says.

Secretly, she pines for a “solitary life in a book-lined room”. That’s what suits her best, Ray believes — even though her Bedouin soul may feel otherwise.

“I became an immigrant out of choice — I was attracted to India and events conspired to pull me to India. But even after that I gave in to my nomadic nature and wandered the world. I am privileged from a point of view that I exercised personal choice to design my life the way I wanted,” Ray says.

It’s not necessarily external forces that prevent us from moving or exploring the world; for as long as she can remember, Ray has been “questioning this notion of home”. “I still have no singular home and the notion of only belonging to a single place is foreign to me,” she admits.

Ray’s life has been one of constant quests — for identities, aspirations, and the self.

While Close To The Bone marks her official debut as a published author, Ray has — almost religiously — turned to the written word at every stage of her life, as is evident from her blog, ‘The Yellow Diaries’. A deeply personal, often humorous account of her tryst with cancer, the blog (much like her autobiography) is an irreverent yet earnest call to changing the thinking around the disease.

In a post from 2010, Ray addresses herself as a “cancer graduate” after a successful stem-cell transplant, following which she was declared cancer-free. She writes:

Let’s make Myeloma Matter…
And a cancer carol…
I wish you a long re-mission, I wish you a long re-mission…
I wish ME a long re-mission
And a Happy, New Life.

However, in 2012, as Ray was writing her book and preparing to wed her husband, Jason Dehni, the condition relapsed. This time, Ray turned to “allopathic and complementary therapies” in order to return to remission.

Cut to 2019, and Ray, 47, has made her way back to India from Hong Kong, along with Dehni and their twin daughters Sufi and Soleil (who will soon turn a year old). “I imagine we will stay a while but continue to travel,” she says. “It’s a completely foreign concept, as I mentioned, to remain in one place.”

As Ray approaches the end of another chapter in her life, marking the beginning of a new one, she plans on gifting the memoir to her father — who's yet to read it — as "an offering derived from a life of emotions, lived 'close to the bone'".

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