I recently came across the Japanese tradition of Kintusukuroi, which is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken. Often, we expect repairs to be seamless and to make the object appear to be ‘new’ again, whereas this art pays homage to the idea that there is a place for ‘better than new’. Not merely observing your cracks, but decorating them with gold is a philosophy which would serve us well in this world. At least, I know it has become the theme of my life. It wasn’t always like that however.
I was born to be a nomad. As a young girl growing up in Toronto, I celebrated both Christmas and Durga Puja, but never felt fully at home in Canada. Childhood was a series of idyllic moments spent in a middle-class suburban utopia, full of bikes rides, swimming lessons and other pursuits, but my eyes were always focused on the horizon and my mind floated into a dreamscape which captured my attention more than immediate events around me. My Bengali father passed on his love of the arts and philosophy, while my Polish mother kept our home running smoothly, and I learned to balance somewhere between these two points: in me, there was a converging of not just two different cultures and bloodlines, but two varying approaches to life, the pragmatic and the poetic. This rich and multilayered identity actually proved problematic when I was growing up.
In the late 70s and 80s, in the pre-globalised world, there were few other people of mixed ethnicities I could identify with. On top of that, India was the only place in the world where I felt at home. As the daughter of immigrants, this proved to be puzzling and ironic, but instinctively I knew destiny would draw me to India. I have always had a deep and abiding faith that the universe is for me and not against me. That it would provide all I needed. So, I prayed for it.
Be careful what you wish for.
I was first approached to model on a trip to Bombay with my mum and dad. I was all of 16 and had graduated from high school a year early in order to see more of the world. As so happens, I found myself in Ashok Salian’s studio, fluidly moving from pose to pose like I was born for the camera, and appearing a full decade older while doing it. Here suddenly was a space where I could shed my introverted behaviour and create a new persona, free of confusion and angst. It was creative and freeing, and playful. And I didn’t take it seriously. This was the early 90s when modelling and acting were really not a legitimate career option - particularly for a brainy half-Bangla girl with an eye on a career in journalism or law.
So, I returned to Canada to begin University when fate dealt its hand. On a clear, crisp day in late August, we were driving home from a picnic in the country when my father swerved to avoid a car and lost control. Our Honda Civic rolled and came to rest in the grass beside a golf course. As I was removed from the car by the emergency crew, I knew nothing in life would ever be the same. My mother and I had switched seats that afternoon, and because of that she was thrown from the back of the car and seriously damaged her spine. She would never walk again.
I still feel liquid grief pulse through my veins, even as I write this. My mother was my lifeline, the custodian of our comfort and raw, earthy wisdom. There is no deeper trauma than losing your mother twice as I did. Once to this horrifying spinal cord injury. Then many years later, letting her go beyond physical discomfort. My mum passed in 2008, just a few months before my physical challenges began.
They say you can only understand life by glancing in the rearview mirror. And so, I have come to recognise that every major turning point in my life is preceded by pain. Or difficult events. It’s been a strong and important lesson in reframing experiences with an openness to what they teach rather than wallowing in the challenges they produce. But hey, that didn’t happen overnight. It took many years and in the beginning, pain was simply pain. A deep, dark, throb in the core of my being.
So, my career in India and entertainment started on the edge of a sword: one side was instant fame and fortune, and the other personal grief and pain. It is because of this I came to understand very early on that fame offers no personal comfort.
And so, I began my decade of making memories in Mumbai. The years flew by in a haze of events. I became successful, as the nineties was the era of ‘supermodels’ when a handful of us ‘names’ were more popular than Bollywood stars. I went through all the rites of passage of your twenties: heartbreak, affairs, insecurity, anorexia, false friends, betrayals and, inevitably, joy and forming life-long bonds.
Slowly I started to find my voice and heal. And gradually, something shifted inside me. In opening to each experience fully - both painful and pleasurably - I was discovering a way not to merely survive my youth, but to thrive even in the darkest experiences. They say the way of an artist is to transform each experience, and so I began to life my life as if it were a giant canvas. As I got more and more in touch with a deeper essence I became more immune to outside criticism, more fearless of challenges and more in touch with the magic and mystery of living beyond the image.
By this time, I had come to be identified a glam girl, a sex symbol, which of course was not my whole story. I came to feel trapped by my image in India and while I was offered the most lucrative Bollywood projects of my era, I refused them all until ‘Kasoor’. Working with Vikram Bhatt, a director with similar sensibilities and a sensitivity towards actors, opened my perspective on how acting could not be a profession, but a personal mission to both understand myself and human nature, and bring great stories to an audience. I was hooked, but I also felt trapped by my image.
So, life called me and I left India, and also left behind a dysfunctional relationship which wasn’t serving me. I crossed the ocean in search of my voice and to grow my personal power. My time spent in London, Paris, Milan and New York was an opportunity to find myself away from the image I had become accustomed to in India.
While I was living and working in Europe, (I went to drama school, studied mime and poetry and started a successful career in Indie films culminating with Oscar nominated ‘Water’ which put me on the map internationally) I realised that what bothered me most about the glamour industry was what I term ‘the pathology of perfection’. As a student of drama, I was attracted to human behaviour in all its colours and imperfections. As Leonard Cohen says, “It’s the cracks that let the light in,” and while I love beauty and glamour, I struggled with people’s perceptions of what it means to be a part of this industry.
The age of internet and globalisation meant that while kids had access to information, they were also still vulnerable to media messaging of aspirational femininity and these unreal red carpet images, which took a full four hours of hair, makeup and styling to achieve. Instead of celebrating our individuality, we were still worshipping illusionary images. I felt so conflicted about this, especially as a girl who had gone through anorexia in pursuit of perfection. I wanted to desperately find an antidote to this unhealthy trend.
Be careful what you ask for.
I was flying high after Water’s Oscar nomination, commuting between Los Angeles and Paris, being courted by studio heads, shooting in South Africa and feeling rather chuffed about the life I had created. I was going on long meditation retreats in Dharamsala and California. Of course, I was also world class in ignoring my body’s messages and signals. I’d get extremely fatigued in the afternoon, so I changed my diet. I drank more coffee. I did everything except go to a doctor to get myself checked.
Finally, during a yoga teacher training course in Kerala, I hit a wall. After one class I stayed in savasana or corpse pose for a full hour, unable to get up off the floor. I knew something was wrong, and I couldn’t live in denial any more. A few months later I sat in a hematologist’s office in Toronto while he nervously pronounced my diagnosis: You have Multiple Myeloma. Silence. Gulp. “Would you like some water?” I asked him with a smile.
When I announced my diagnosis from the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had put on forty pounds from steroids and developed the classic ‘moonface’. But I felt more at ease than ever before in my body and my soul. I was freeing myself of ‘the pathology of perfection’ by high-jacking a very glamourous moment to talk about something more personally meaningful to myself and all humanity: life. The possibility of fighting for your life and chronicling every moment with dignity and respect and thus putting all our other concerns into perspective. What do I care if I’m not a perfect size zero, when I’m grappling with a serious disease? I am the same person, just more invested in life. Nothing less than the threat of death does that.
And so, I chronicled my cancer journey in the Yellow Diaries. Cancer has opened an entirely new chapter in my life. Firstly, I care very deeply about demystifying cancer in India and providing an example where not only have I gotten through my treatment, but in fact I am thriving while LIVING with cancer, because of course Multiple Myeloma is considered incurable. I also have an opportunity to use my profile to promote this cause and others that are meaningful to me.
What do you care about?
Forget the rest.
Cancer has freed me.
And therefore, I wear my porth a cath scar proudly in my chest like an honourable pin. I don’t mind that my body will not resemble my ‘Bombay Dyeing’ days silhouette after steroids and chemo-induced menopause. I work and offer my talents as an actor and woman even as I celebrate my forties and finding my voice and the love of my life post a stem cell transplant.
When you quest, you find an accidental power, the best sort of power with which to transform yourself and the world.
So today, make a choice. Don’t observe your wounds and cracks with any sort of regret, but instead decorate them with gold. Highlight that I am “better than new” and understand you’re more beautiful for having been broken.
This was first published in Femina, republished with Lisa Ray's permission.