Clarity and grace mark Lisa Ray’s writing debut, Close to the Bone
Swapan Seth runs RASS (Reputation Amplification by Swapan Seth), a very high-end image management consulting firm and This Content, a digital communication, brand advocacy and thinkfluencer marketing firm. He lives in the hills of Himachal Pradesh
Clearly, there is loads of Calcutta in your book, Close to the Bone (HarperCollins India). The family home in Shyambazar, your Boroma’s place in Kalighat, Presidency College where your father studied. And the usual foot soldiers of Calcutta, such as Bata and Horlicks. What did Calcutta mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?
Calcutta tutored me in the creativity embedded in everyday life. It was the aliveness of the city and the way it penetrated my skin even as a child that set me firmly on a nomadic path. I was born in Canada but my most vivid and earliest memories are of our ancestral home in north Calcutta and the bungalow of extended family in Serampore. It was also in Calcutta that I was introduced to the idea that life was not always equitable and fair but flowed in its own logic. And I was more comfortable with this city of monstrous contradictions and inspiration and secret knowledge than the sterile but efficient neighbourhood I grew up in.
I am still very nostalgic for Calcutta but, like every memory, the Calcutta of my childhood exists as a ghostly outline, and troublesome reality is superimposed on the places and people I conjured up. Still I feel at home in the city, there is a strong connection. I notice things that might escape the eyes of another and I always try to pay a visit to the Kali temple. I don’t speak very good Bengali, I may not appear to belong but it’s my mother city, it nourished me, fed my imagination and entered my veins in an irreversible manner.
You end the very first chapter of your book with the fact that in you lies the convergence of two cultures and bloodlines, two varying approaches to life, the pragmatic and the poetic. While this became your strength, you say that it turned problematic once you grew up. How and why?
I was born in the ’70s when there were relatively few mixed blood marriages and children. I had no reference points, no others of mixed Polish-Indian blood I could look up to. In Canada I was constantly asked: “What are you?” as a way of establishing my legitimacy to belong in one group or the other. I grew up in a neighbourhood that was predominantly Italian and Portuguese, so it was assumed I was one or the other. But I always felt more aligned to my Indian side and I would announce myself to be Indian with both pride and defiance. Inevitably I would then invite the comment: “But you don’t look Indian”, which led to me using a phrase I had overheard once: “I’m an Indian flower child”. So on the basis of how I appeared, my identity became an issue wherever I went. I never fully fit into Canada, nor India. It moulded me into the perennial outsider, which is fortunately a great vantage point for a writer and natural observer. It also created the impulse to challenge norms and perceptions from a young age. This tribal mentality of organising humans into identifiable groups is both our strength and downfall as a species.
I believe Tagore has said it best when he said: “Neither the colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism nor the fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship is the goal of human history.” I believe in that. Part of my personal quest has been to uncover who I am beyond self-serving identities.
Essayist-novelist Anais Nin once said: “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” What in the retrospect lead you to writing the book and what do you feel in the moment?
It’s a lovely quote but I write to write. Writing in and of itself to me is a meditation and a great labour. I try to conjure real-life moments but from the vantage point of who I am today. And let’s face it — every writer wants to not only narrative a tale, but do it through their own unique lenses and words. The aspect of writing is as important as the story to me. The writers I love do that so well: Jhumpa Lahiri, Tishani Doshi, Educated by Tara Westover — the details of the stories of everyday life are elevated in the style of telling. I am first and foremost a reader. I wrote the book because I’ve always wanted to write a book. An opportunity presented itself to write my memoir so I listened to serendipity and followed my instincts.
You have always been a nomad. Constantly on the run. From Toronto to India to London to Zurich to Dharamshala to Hong Kong. There is a Buddhist saying: Home is the here and now. Where is home for you? What is home for you?
I have arrived at a place of peace where I understand the answers I was seeking for so long are not out there but inside. I’ve been fortunate to come across teachers and guides who led me on great adventures that ultimately led me back to myself. It’s like that T.S. Eliot poem: We shall not cease from our exploration/ and at the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time.
But to be honest, the world today is such a confusing, polarising, noisy place that if you don’t at times feel lost and vulnerable, I wonder what’s wrong with you? Do you really want to fit into a global culture that is so destructive, myopic and self-serving? I am at home in the world and in myself more than ever before. Does it mean I don’t long to travel still? Not at all. But my travel comes from a more mindful place rather than mania.
In the book you say: “Very few things are as debilitating as someone thinking they know how to define you.” Fair enough, then how do you define yourself?
I choose not to define myself at all. Human mammal perhaps?
My personal point of poignancy in the book is the time you encountered an African walking down Holland Park in London and he then asked you a question. Share that with the readers. It is the most beautiful thing I have read.
Thank you. I hope readers will stumble organically on this anecdote, but it represents broadly a sort of a guide arrived into my life at the right moment in the form of an impoverished African refugee. I met him in Holland Park and we walked side by side for a long time while he told me about his life and how he had lost all the wealth and status he had in his homeland as a result of geopolitical circumstances. But there was nothing of the victim in him or his bearing.
I train myself to see beyond appearances — the clothes and fine watches that people wear often conceal more than they reveal. And vice versa. By the end of our walk he left me with a riddle that has remained with me ever since and become a metaphorical road map of sorts for my life.
You wrote: “Romantic love is a hedge against self-doubt.” Is that why you moved from one partner to another? And then finally, you found true romantic love (Jason Dehni). And it no longer was a hedge on self-doubt. In fact, it was the punt of someone who was finally sure. Explain this dichotomy to me.
I can’t explain it except for the fact that I moved from the conditioning of the world that says you are incomplete unless you have a partner, to finding essential love and support and completeness within myself. Once I healed myself and stopped looking for someone else to complete me, I stumbled on the right partner for me. That took years though.
I have always lived at an intersection of contradictions though — I was fiercely independent, earned my own money, set my own schedule and parameters for everything in life, but I would fall into unhealthy, co-dependent relationships. It’s a contradiction but much of human behaviour is that and I’ve heard the same pattern afflict other successful strong women. My conclusion is to stop reaching outside ourselves so much for completion. Turn the lens inside and explore that inner world first.
Water, the film, has great significance in the book. It was many things to you. In the book, you say it was the point where you found the mightiest star in the sky to navigate your understanding. What did Water mean to you?
Water represented the quality of cinema I always longed to be part of. It’s not only a beautiful film, but it is embedded with meaning and the tragic beauty of life. Working with Deepa Mehta has influenced my life on so many levels. She represents the quality of subversive, uncompromising talent I aspire to and I’m fortunate to call her a mentor and friend. But I was in drama school in London when Water was offered to me — serendipitously — and it was the most lyrical script I had ever read. I had to petition my drama school principal to give me a semester off to work on the film. It was a completely immersive experience — everything from training with Neelam Mansingh’s troupe in how to embody a village girl to travelling to Vrindavan to see vriddha ashrams that exist to this day to the process of becoming Kalyani — it was that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that every actor dreams of. Water to me meant being a part of something timeless. It is art. It will always be relevant.
In your life, you have always leaned towards spirituality. What made it so attractive to you?
I can’t explain it rationally. This questing spirit has always been in me. The places which should have felt strange or inhospitable to be are the places I feel most at peace. Whether it’s a temple, a dargah, a monastery, a solitary retreat at the top of a mountain — these are my comfort zones. It’s being in the world that is so hard. But it’s where I practise. I am very aligned with both Buddhism and Hinduism and I try to practise what I’ve been taught in small ways everyday. Spirituality also cuts the head of your ego. It gives you a wider lens through which to see everything. It also gives me a strong sense of trust and faith — not blind faith, but the understanding that life is for me, not against me. I don’t have to struggle. I’m not so important at all — but my spirit is eternal and boundless, so I am simultaneously everything and nothing. I believe Tagore wrote beautifully about spirituality and Hinduism in Sadhana.
In the book, you say: “Destiny hinges on which message you send and serendipity takes care of the rest.” Are destiny and serendipity actually very good friends with each other?
Yes, they are. They work very beautifully together if you can find it in yourself to stop interfering and just trust.
For me, as a writer, what took my breath away was your description of people: “Sean Penn is the only man who makes me weak in the knees. I love his whole persona. His talent is mixed with a little bit of vinegar.” You described the salesgirl in the store as: “Long as a leek with a bob of hair.” There is clearly a visual pattern in your writing. Are fine writers, fine visualisers?
Perhaps there’s something there. I have this strange habit of splitting my consciousness to be able to be involved in a discussion and at the same time watch from a distance, notice the details in the room, the way a man uses his hands. I’m writing in my head all the time. I’ve always been like this. Perhaps it also has given me objectivity during my darkest moments — I was writing the narrative of what I saw during my cancer treatment — the bell on the wall of the chemo ward, the IV poles and how the nurses joined in singing with me — even while I was going through the experience. Words, sentences, stories are how I consume the world.
“Padma patram ivam bhasa” (live your life like the lotus flower). This became the mantra of your life. Tell us how it tailed you throughout your life?
I first came across this shlok during the filming of Water. John Abraham’s character in the film, the idealist Narayan, asks my character Kalyani, how she can tolerate the circumstances of her life to which she responds: “Padma patram ivam bhasa” or “Live your life like the lotus flower.” I felt this was a philosophy and metaphor that embodies my personal experiences best. I’ve often heard it said that our beliefs create our life. If you believe life is ugly and a struggle and success can only be had at the expense of someone else — that is the sort of life you will manifest. I’m not at all a passive person, but I believe in living in a way that the ugliness of the world will not taint my intentions or beliefs. It doesn’t mean I don’t take steps for justice, but the quality with which you move through the world changes.
What has been the high point of your career in cinema. Water? Or the Bond girl audition?
I believe each experience is a legitimate island of both hilarity and legitimate learnings. There’s no high point. Each experience I’ve enjoyed to the fullest. I simply don’t judge my life on a scale of achievements.
When your doctor told you that you had multiple myeloma, you said: “I had stopped listening at the last syllable of myeloma. Why? Because it simply didn’t occur to me that I would not get better.” Right through your life, and the book, you have made acceptance into an armour...
Yes, but it’s not an armour but a softening. We are so wary of vulnerability. When it’s the source of our greatest strength. Acceptance for me has been about embracing the truth and vulnerability is inherent in every experience. Otherwise we get pretty weighed down carrying all that armour — you can see the people who are always armoured up with defence mechanisms — it shows on their face and in the way they carry themselves.
Your time at the Tushita Meditation Centre lead you to write a piece of poetry. I quote an extract from it: “If life is an act of remembrance, don’t forget every considered step and how well you have fallen down.” It leads me to the last question of this wonderful conversation. So tell me, Lisa Rani Ray, now when you look back and then ahead, what is your story? Is it about how well you fell down? Or how well you rose up?
I believe it’s how well I have fallen. We have created a dialogue in society about overcoming, rising, but not about falling. We don’t speak as much about failing well. About using those missteps as a teaching and an understanding of how it’s part of the human condition is not spoken of widely.