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A lot has changed in life after cancer: Manisha Koirala

Learning to trust the process of life has been Manisha's biggest takeaway from her battle with cancer

By Shrestha Saha

  • Published 22.12.18, 11:37 PM
  • Updated 22.12.18, 11:37 PM
Manisha Koirala recently released her memoir, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life (co-authored with Neelam Kumar)
Manisha Koirala recently released her memoir, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life (co-authored with Neelam Kumar) Source: Penguin Random House India

When we catch up with her on the phone, Manisha Koirala is unbridled in her enthusiasm to share her life-transforming story of fighting cancer, which she has chronicled in her recently-released memoir, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life (co-authored with Neelam Kumar). In the course of the 40-minute chat with The Telegraph, the Bollywood star revealed some more of herself.

The way you have bared yourself in this book, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life, is an act of tremendous courage. How did you overcome your apprehensions to be so candid?

I had to be honest. I have seen most of these celebrity books where they are hesitant. Everybody knows everything, so there is no point if one is not being honest. People have their assumptions and perceptions. I knew right from the beginning that if I was going to write a book, I would write my version of the truth and then put it out there for people to decide if they will accept it or hate me.

It was very difficult, I must say. Initially for a year it was so painful, putting it in words, to be able to even talk about it was painful... the first few months especially, even though I had other people helping me with the book. I had to slowly come to terms with the fact that either it would be done properly and honestly, or it wouldn’t be done at all. I almost dropped the book around July-August this year. I was facing so many conflicting emotions and it was very tough. Then I thought, let me just take a call and trust in the process of storytelling and sharing whatever I have been through, openly, and let it take its own course.

You have called your experience of fighting cancer a “journey of self-discovery”. How has it made you look differently at the world?

A lot has changed after cancer and not only in my physical body but also the way I perceive life, the way I experience people and life and situations. I am still a hyper person, an anxious person, a lazy person who always needs to be corrected. I have to tell myself to be on my toes and not fall back into lazy habits.

In my book, I have written how I am a work in progress. It’s not like I have found that I am perfect in every area. I still have lots of flaws but I am more gentle with my people and my friends. I am more forgiving, kinder, and I don’t get bogged down easily with problems.

Earlier, when things wouldn’t be too bad, I would still feel very badly about an issue. Basically, focused too much on the negative, on the pain; now I am gentler and more peaceful with everything around me.

Also, I feel that because of this change in my attitude, my circumstances have changed in terms of my work environment, and my relationship with my family. Earlier, even though I loved my family I didn’t spend quality time with them. Now I prioritise spending time, I prioritise hugging and cuddling my mom and I feel that my relationships are better.

Earlier I was the sole decision maker and I was always taking control, taking charge, which I still do at times but at the same time, I have learnt to just let it be. During cancer when I was flat out on the bed, I was so helpless. I wanted to do things my way but it was not happening. I learnt to trust the process of life and letting other people also sometimes take control. I became more easy-going.

Now I just grab every good opportunity that comes my way. Earlier I would think ‘Ah! I have a lifetime to get what I want’ but I don’t think like that anymore. Procrastinating is a habit that I have to overcome.

Secondly, the opportunities won’t knock again and again. So if a really good opportunity comes my way, I take a decision right there. It’s been fun and many new avenues are opening up for me — in relationships and friendships — and I have a lot more clarity in my thinking process.

Earlier whoever could travel with me, whoever was available at a given point of time would be my friend. But now I am much more cautious of who I am inviting into my personal space. So I started honouring my space a lot.

You mentioned being ‘unlucky in love’. Are you optimistic about it now?

I am guarded now (laughs). This is an area where I have not really been successful and that attitude of ‘kuch bhi ho, chalta hai’ is gone. I am very content in my own space. I am very content being single. I don’t feel the need of someone absolutely having to be with me to make me feel like a woman. That whole concept flew out of the window.

Most of the time I am with my parents because they are growing old and I want to spend time with them, look after them and have some lovely memories. But I also long to have my own private space. I have become a person who is happy in my own space. So to invite someone into that space, I am going to be a) guarded and b) I would look at the quality of energy I am bringing into that space. I am hopeful yes, but my life doesn’t revolve around that hope.

You believe in self-love over romantic love. How does one go about it?

The first step has to be to honour oneself, knowing your worth, knowing that you deserve the best. Adjustment is workable for me because people do adjust to each other’s qualities. In every relationship, be it mother-daughter, brother-sister, husband-wife or friends, you accept the other person’s minuses, but I feel there was a huge part that I had compromised in the hope that there would be a peaceful relationship.

Being mindful of a person’s negativity and being honest and upfront about it to oneself at least and (deciding) whether it is worth the compromise or not is important. Basically getting clarity on what I am getting into rather than just imagining and hoping for the best. It is because we have this conflict that if we don’t have a life partner, our lives will be incomplete. Or that there is something not right about a single woman or single person. So if one can overcome these things and be financially independent, educated and can fend for oneself, a lot of things start falling into place.

It is important to be a happy person who does things that give them joy and make them feel comfortable. You are taking ownership of your life and you will not be victimised or do things where your heart says no but you still end up doing it to make other people happy. And it is extremely important to be aware of what exactly is pulling you down and what is giving you joy.

If you are looking for a partner, it is imperative that you find someone who makes you a better human being, makes you more secure, more peaceful, more confident about yourself. Not a ‘yes person’ but someone who gently corrects you for your mistakes. It has to be a relationship of equals where you respect the other person and the other person respects you. If these qualities are not there, I’d rather not have a relationship or even friendship!

You have spoken about forgiveness in the book — forgiving your friends who couldn’t be by your side when you needed them as well as about forgiving yourself. How does one let go of the resentment and forgive?

I was at Oneness University where one of the teachings was that the external world is a reflection of our inner world. I figured that there are follies that I need to forgive in myself and once you start being aware of your own mistakes and the realisation comes, you automatically start forgiving others for the same mistakes.

Though I must say that I am also very self-critical, which most women are actually. We are always trying to be perfect. So the struggle and stress which is automatically going on in our heads, the negative self-talk, is very real.

There is a very clear line of what I expect from others and if they do not fall in this category, I peacefully move away rather than confronting them, or getting angry. I might get angry but ideally that’s not the best reaction I can give. If I don’t see appreciation of where I am coming from, I tend to move away and withdraw.

You feel your dependency on alcohol came from wanting to feel less awkward in social situations. That phase of your life — do you regret it or has it contributed to making you who you are today?

You know this is a very valid question because there is this teaching that says “everything that happens helps shape you, both good and bad”. So it’s all about looking back and saying “thank you” for doing what you did to me and now I want to carve another reality for myself and change certain things. So that’s what I did.

But a part of me still pinches me — I have to be honest again — and I do sometimes wish that my lessons were less tortuous. So yeah, a part of me does have regrets but I take solace in the fact that everything has shaped me into who I am today. And I should be thankful and grateful for my digressions and my correctional steps.

You had thought of adopting a child. Is that still on the cards?

It’s something that has my heart for sure but I am trying to get my footing right in my second innings story. I want to do everything very mindfully and very correctly. Yesterday also, at an event, this lady came and she told me she had adopted a child three years back. I instantly took her to a corner and started asking her the details of how it is.

I still want to adopt, but the thing is I am a late-stage cancer survivor, my parents are old and I am shuttling between Mumbai and Kathmandu and my work is there, so I need to be able to find a space where I can do full justice to this role. It is a huge responsibility. If I can find a comfortable space and do it without getting stressed, where I can really enjoy this process, I would love to go ahead and do this.

You have connected with your spiritual side. Is this something you’d advise others to explore?

My journey through spirituality has been quite a long one. I was an atheist, a hardcore rationalist. Everything was ruled by logic. When I was a teenager I used to believe that man created god out of fear. I had very strong views on the matter. But then I changed over the years. I realised that this physical form, what we are seeing is not all. There is more to life than what’s just visible.

Human beings have walked this planet for so long and so much technological advancement has happened and yet we don’t have cure for so many diseases. So even science is actually evolving and it hasn’t found 100 per cent answers to everything. In the context of looking at everything in the bigger picture, spirituality has helped me immensely. I don’t like to advise people but I can say this much that it has really helped me. So see for yourself if it helps you or not. Find your own path, as everybody must.

What made you decide to do the Netflix film Lust Stories? The vengeful ending — do you like it or would you do it differently if it were in real life?

I promised myself that my second innings would be as experimental and fun as possible! Movies also reflect that I guess (laughs). I had Dibakar (Banerjee) convincing me and I am really glad I did that because the times have changed from the ’90s, when I joined. He is a very good director and his sensibility of telling a story is very different. I loved the character (Reena, a married woman who has an affair with her husband’s best friend). Somehow in my personal space, I wanted to be black and white but this was such a grey character and that’s the beauty of this movie. I am so black and white that I would end up telling him ki yeh aise hona chahiye and he would say, “Manisha, just trust me.” And he is a director I could really trust and it has turned out really well.

Are you ready to immerse yourself in the chaos that is Bollywood, or would you like to take your time with one project at a time?

I want to space out my work, and I want to enjoy it to the fullest. Back-to-back projects will not work for me, I realised. I would need my me time, my family time, my travel time. I did that when I was younger... back-to-back work, studios, three shifts in one day, 18-20 hours work. Now I really want to slow down, do some quality work and enjoy other aspects of life. Like last night there was a gathering of people and I enjoyed talking to them. I enjoy telling my story and interacting with people.

How was the reaction to your performance in Sanju from your close set of people?

They all loved the film. I had told them repeatedly that it was a small role. They thought it would be really small and later they said: “Arrey itna chhota bhi nahin hai.” Most importantly, I enjoyed working in that film.

What kind of roles are you looking at in your second innings?

I have some great scripts in my hand right now and I am hoping that some of them will work out. I am getting some interesting offers, maybe one or two will happen, which is good enough for me. I want to work with some really good directors, do some meaningful roles.

What does your bucket list look like right now?

There is so much! Next year, I am trekking to Everest Base camp with two of my girlfriends from school. We are all in great places in our lives, one is a fashion designer, one is a housewife, I am in the film industry. I have finished with one book this year. Hopefully next year, I will be ready with my second one. I really want to travel within India and abroad, visit more naturopathy centres and understand my new-found body after the treatment, act in some great roles and generally have a great time doing everything that I enjoy.

Healed: How cancer gave me a new life
Healed: How cancer gave me a new life Source: Penguin Random House India

Chapter 16: Vulnerability — The Chink in My Armour

An excerpt from Healed: How cancer gave me a new life, by Manisha Koirala with Neelam Kumar 

Nine months of kindness and loving friendship later turned into a full-fledged relationship in November. It had been a few weeks since I returned from Kathmandu and I was alone in Mumbai. He became my sole companion to various hospital visits in Mumbai and New York.

Everything was going perfect until I started to ask about his other ‘someone’. I guess this was the beginning of the end of this romantic saga. He started to lie when I asked him about it. He told me that they were separated BUT STILL CONTINUING FOR THE SAKE OF COMMITMENT. That emotionally there was a disconnect between them. He painted a very grave picture of their relationship. But I began feeling doubtful. I wished that what he was saying was the truth. I had a failed marriage behind me so I believed him when he said that he was in an unhappy relationship too. I prayed he was not lying to me. He came in as the protective alpha male who would comfort me. ‘I will protect you from the world,’ he would say. I felt like a child amid mishaps. Very vulnerable. The relationship was like that between a rescuer and rescued. As long as this was the equation, it worked, as the roles were very clear. But the moment I wasn’t in that victim role any more, and wanted to be on an equal footing, things started to unravel. The only problem was, I was deeply in love with him.

When his betrayal became apparent it shook my world and the effect remains to this day. It’s not easy to recover from a heartbreak. Ironically, it was at this time that I watched Ek Mulakat, in which my friend Deepti Naval portrayed the role of Amrita Pritam. It was a play about the unrequited love between the great poets Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianvi, who were madly in love with each other but had other commitments and partners of their own. This play stayed with me long after it was over.

Midway through the play, it struck me that somehow, my story was similar. My heart was breaking and I was moving out of the relationship. Mine too was a story about unrequited, unfinished love. My aunt’s words echoed louder in my head, ‘Manisha, you’re very lucky in your work, but very unlucky in love.’

(Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India) 

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