The last day of the recently held Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli began with actor Manisha Koirala sharing her three-year-long journey of conquering cancer. Once she was done with obliging fans with selfies and had a small gig with Rajasthani folk dancers on the stage as well, she settled in for a two-hour conversation with author-journalist Sathya Saran. Koirala spoke about her battle with ovarian cancer that initially spelt despair for her, but eventually turned out to be a life-changing journey. “This phase really made me delve into who I am and what I want to be,” she said at the outset.
Titled Healed: How cancer gave me a new life (Penguin; Rs 499), her memoir is about finding hope and believing that all will turn out fine. “There was a time I would ask the doctors to give me a guarantee of how much time I have, but gradually, I made peace with fear and death. That’s what taught me to make the most of all I have, and it has now become an extension of my personality,” she said.
In 2012, when Koirala discovered that she had last-stage ovarian cancer, with “little hope”, it became a metaphor for all that was wrong in her life. “My marriage was broken, I had no film career, and then this happened. I thought I had not lived my life fully; everything was baaki,” she added, admitting that it filled her with regret about her unhealthy lifestyle, some times bordering on the reckless. She insisted that no one should take his/her health lightly. “I have learnt to give importance to my health and that’s something I tell others to do as well,” said the 49-year-old actor.
But, she says, the harder part after being declared cancer-free by her doctors in the US was her return to Mumbai, “bald, without eyebrows and eyelashes”. She was worried people would say:‘kya thi aur kya ho gayi hai’. Once back home, she lacked the strength to look into anyone’s eyes, avoided meeting people, and remained in hoodies and kept her gaze on the ground. “Later, I discovered that not everyone is cruel or mean. People accepted and appreciated my journey; and that gave me strength,” she said.
On the support she received during her battle, Koirala says even as empathy came from unexpected quarters, not too many people from Bollywood reached out. “Also, I was in a phase where I was coming to terms with my diagnosis; so I kept away from my phone and from people,” she adds.
Koirala stressed on the importance of small little gestures by people that went a long way in helping her remain positive during her treatment: like her uncle telling her to mentally accept chemo as “tonic shots” and never reject it or fear it; a friend lending her Burberry coat while she was leaving for the US for her treatment and asking to return it when she came back; a Maori healer asking her to send love to her ovaries; and she creating a small affirmative mantra for herself during her treatment.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, Koirala focused on getting another chance at life. Now that she has it, she says, “When I look back, I am not happy with a lot of things that I have done in the past. I want to do some things differently. And that’s what I am doing now. I have made promises to myself. I’ve learnt to value my family, relationships, health and work.” She is presently looking forward to the release of Prassthanam, the Hindi remake of the 2010 Telugu hit by the same name, in which she reunites with Jackie Shroff and Sanjay Dutt after two decades.