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Unforgetting cancer

Manisha Koirala's memoir about healing looks inwards into her insecurities, suffering and the will to overcome

Manisha Koirala writes from a place of dark introspection. Photo: Hindustan Times
Manisha Koirala writes from a place of dark introspection. Photo: Hindustan Times

Actor Manisha Koirala, now in her 40s, is cause-celebre of ovarian cancer in India—and cancer in general. Cancer isn’t a happy subject to write about, it is the most dreaded disease in human civilization. In India, disease and disability are still shrouded in shame and secrecy, so a book on surviving cancer is a rarity. Many famous Indians are now beginning to open up about their diagnoses and are actively trying to dispel myths surrounding cancer. Koirala was a torchbearer in this sense. After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013, she talked about her struggle with the disease and why it isn’t a death sentence.

This year has been a milestone in Koirala’s life. She returned to acting, the profession she stayed away from while healing from cancer, with Raj Kumar Hirani’s Sanju, in the role of Sanjay Dutt’s mother. She also played the lead role in Dibakar Banerjee’s short on infidelity and marital trappings, Lust Stories, an anthology released on Netflix. Her memoir, Healed: How Cancer Gave Me A New Life written with Neelam Kumar, has also just appeared—a deeply emotional, personal account of her life in the last five years.

Cancer survivor memoirs can be either dark and unsettling, or anodyne and preachy, like self-help manuals. Owning one’s diagnosis, looking at it like the life-threatening disease it is, and yet be true to one’s emotional response to confronting mortality is an extremely difficult journey. Koirala chooses to revisit moments and memories as she felt them—it is less a self-help book than a chronicling of inner transformation. Koirala begins with her memory of a “winter wonderland" through the window panes of her room at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York in December 2013. The book has details of an arduous diarist. She describes what she imagined New York to be at that time and soon takes us to her homeland, Nepal: “I found myself ambling into Kathmandu’s quaint lanes, my nose assailed by the strong concoction of pungent, musty, fetid and cloyingly sweet smells of hashish, fish, vegetables and spices." The truth of her condition at that time, was this: “like a six-foot boxer’s steel punch landing right in the hollow of my stomach. My verdict had been pronounced. Cancer had won. I was dying."

After a debilitating debulking surgery and months of chemotherapy, which she recounts in painstaking detail, Koirala had NED (no evidence of disease) in her reports. Her opportunity for a second life began a year after the diagnosis of metastatic ovarian cancer, and she used it to radically rewire herself. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Koirala was a director’s dream heroine for roles that required more than glamour. She reached the peak of her career with Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) in which she played the role of an Assamese woman who is doomed in love because she is part of a suicide squad of a terrorist wing. In the book, she doesn’t delve deeply into her career and towards the end, she hurriedly explains what happened to her self-image when her film career launched at the age of 19. She was awkward and shy, uninterested in socializing, but a career in films soon required her to be in public gaze. She writes that she didn’t embrace fame wholeheartedly and soon became dependent on alcohol, her relationships soured and she progressively became disconnected from who she was before she made it big in Bollywood. It isn’t a remarkably singular path for a film star.

The second part of the book has bits that seem straight out of a therapist’s notebook. The latest methods of integrative oncology use Western medicine, various kinds of psychotherapy and mental healing, physical exercise, diet and natural healing practices to tackle cancer and prevent its recurrence. The last two chapters touch upon how these processes work.

Books on disease and disability haven’t produced many best-sellers in India. Now, with more openness about issues of the body and survivor stories, with an emphasis on positivity, which an ever-growing wellness industry endorses, a book like Healed is a best-seller idea. We live in a world that thrives on the promise of self-improvement, cleansing and healing, and memoirs of someone who has overcome the biggest of all maladies and healed from its after-effects is an abiding story. It helps that Koirala is a film star in Bollywood, the great Indian unifier.

The engaging parts of Koirala’s book are where she writes from a place of dark introspection about mortality and living when she goes through the worst of suffering, rather than about the merits of a psychological or physical purging. We see a sensitive, vulnerable and deeply empathetic person entrenched in the faith of companionship and human bonding in these chapters, and it is a triumph of self-expression.

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