Swapan Seth: ”I must say that I was a tad startled when you started the book with a quote from Susan Sontag. I mean people who read Sontag are either dead or in rehab. Sontag herself once said, “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.” So tell me, what was given up by you and what was taken away from you? “
Lisa Rani Ray: I have to admit I’ve never considered Sontag in the same light that you mention but it sounds right. To what you have said I would add, people are invested in their re-education, which is a sort of death. To answer your question, all I have willingly given away is not mine. The sound bath of opinions from the world of what a life should be shaped by, respectability, what constitutes a good life. It’s been important to not value others opinions in pursuit of answers, which is what has always driven me. It sounds ironic given my profession, but that’s one of the reasons I wrote Close to the Bone, because the world can’t always understand what goes on beneath the surface. What was taken from me? Nothing that doesn’t belong to me in the first place, which is very little. But primarily this fantasy that someone else is responsible for my happiness. It’s so ingrained culturally and its’ so damaging. But then how will the world sell you things if you are completely self-reliant?
SS: Chekov once said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Even in your book, you talk about Kintsokurai, the art of repairing broken things with gold lacquer. You have always what broke in you. You saw healing in hurt. Peace in pain. Tell me more about that.
Photograph: Farrokh Chothia
LRR: I was a victim of the pathology of perfection for many years- attempting to measure up to some imaginary and unachievable image – not only in appearance but in achievement and work ethic. It was my decision to announce my cancer diagnosis from the red carpet of the Toronto International Film festival in 2009 when I was bloated on steroids that broke the spell. I had been living in a disconnect between private pain and public persona and I had never found a way to bridge the two worlds. This gesture of subverting a very public moment and one that is normally defined by glamour and intense public scrutiny to talk about an experience of great adversity I was going through freed me. It really freed me. It set me on the road to embrace my wounds and in fact find strength and redemption through lining my cracks with gold, as it were. I came across the Japanese art of Kintukusoroi shortly afterward and it became a symbol for my new life.
SS: You were one of our first supermodels. The first actor of Indian origin. You worked with great names like Deepa Mehta. Even auditioned with Daniel Craig for a Bond film. Your life was a cavalcade of achievement commas. Did the illness mark the full-stop?
LRR: Not at all. In fact, the disease clarified a great deal. I never valued a lot of the work I did before cancer. Partly because I am an accidental actress and never longed to be part of this profession and partly because I felt I was at the mercy of labels and others opinions of who I was and who I should be. In fact I’ve written in Close to the Bone, ‘Very few things are as debilitating as someone thinking they know how to define you’ and that was a struggle for much of my life. After cancer, I was free to pursue my passions and free from debilitating opinions. Nothing like wrestling with your mortality to put things in perspective. And here I am now, on the eve of the release of my book. I have always wanted to write and finally I found the courage and resolve.
SS: It was Jhumpa Lahiri who once said “The essential dilemma of my life is between my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging. “ Your family and your life has all been about the nomadic. A mother who was Polish, a father who is a Bengali and a life in Canada. Who do you belong to or what do your belong to?
LRR: Belonging is over rated. I certainly feel connected and aligned to certain places and parts of the world- specifically India and the west coast in Canada- but I belong to myself.
SS: Serendipity has been your lifelong friend. Decades ago, your father told you, “ Words matter... you have that story-telling story. And now, you have written a first-rate story. When you were shooting for WATER, and had to shave off your head and later as a corollary to your illness. You made a list of 52 qualities that you wanted in the man you love and then in Jason, you found them. Lois Bujold said,“It’s a bizarre but wonderful feeling, to arrive dead centre of a target you didn't even know you were aiming for.” What do you think?
LRR: I strongly maintain that my so called achievements are all a direct result of the role serendipity has played in my life- I have no ownership over them except to get out of my own way, which is a difficult thing to achieve, so that’s perhaps my greatest achievement. It’s to be open, to be observant, and to act when necessary. All the rest is really the great mistress serendipity. But I always trust she has a scintillating itinerary in mind for me.
SS: Not many are aware of the the roles that religion and spirituality have played in your life. The temple of Shirdi, Ganesh, Rishikesh, Buddhism. In the Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna says four kinds of people were drawn to him; the distressed, those that needed money, the philosophically inquisitive and the wise who only wanted a loving relationship with Him. What has been your glue ?
LRR: Perhaps a combination of all four at different stages of my life. I’ve always had a questing spirit; I came into the world this way. In fact, I believe a hermetic life comes naturally to me- I am very comfortable in solitude, in the company of seekers, on a mountain or monastery. The challenge for me is beign in the world- that’s where I work out all my karmas. But the life of the spirit is a priority for me. It’s tough to write about these things as a lot of experiences occur out of the realm of what is tangible and relatable to most.
SS: I have always maintained that terrific writers write with their eyes. Their power of observation is their plan and when they fortify it with compelling craftsmanship, they move from being good to great. I loved your description of Sunjay Dutt. You said, “ He struck me as both breathless baby bird and a wild spirit, rounded up and caged by civility. He hunched as though exhausted from the effort of being himself. “ Whose writing craft do you admire?
LRR There are so many writers. Jhumpa Lahiri for her clean lyrical style. Orhan Pamuk. Educated by Tara Westover blew my mind. Tishani Doshi. Kamila Shamsie. Amy Tan. Suketu Mehta. Iris Murdoch. Siddharth Sanghvi. Rushdie. It goes on and on. I actually cultivate the friendship of writers. They are my favorite people other than Tibetan Buddhist monks and professional nomads.
SS: For your wedding, your friend Tara Maclean, wrote a song. The first stanza was “ I was lost. But now am found. Here in your arms. On solid ground.” Has Lisa Ray been finally found?
LRR:I hope not. And I suspect not.
SS: One last question. And do NOT Google this: What’s the capital of Moldova?
LRR: Damn you, Swapan. Anyplace but the eastern bloc!!!
Swapan Seth is a writer. He lives in the hills.