There used to be an early morning ritual at actress Neena Gupta's house before Masaba was sent off to school. Neena and the house maid would spend precious moments bunching up the young schoolgirl's bushy hair as she yelped and fretted, breakfast egg hanging to her lips. The hair was just one of the few things that she hated at the time; eventually she was to face some predictable road bumps that her unconventional parents had prepared her for in their own way. Their wisdom made little sense to her at the time, but was filed away to be referenced in future. As the 21-year-old took a bow after her presentation at the Gen-Next section of the recently-concluded fashion week, dressed in a bright red dhoti and a black and white jacket, a wild bunch of curls framing her café au lait face, one knew that both Neena and Masaba had made confident strides into the future. She was adjudged the winner and awarded a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh by the Inter National Institute of Fashion Design. As she goes about arranging her line of clothing, titled Masaba, at Amara, a fashion store in Mumbai, the final year student at SNDT observes that this is for keeps for the next ten years or so. "Masaba is lucky that she has been able to make up her mind about the future so soon; most of us just go through the motions till we are 40 only to realise that we could have done something else much better," says her mother Neena Gupta. "I think I would have made a very good IAS officer." Masaba used to be a state level tennis player, has dabbled in music (blues, country) and dance (Shiamak Davar), before setting her mind on design. She spent three months in London learning music, but had to return when Neena found out that they had actually faulted on researching the right institute and all she was getting was part-time training. "She was alone and not learning much, but she is an introvert and didn’t want to suggest that all the money that was being spent on her was going waste. I called her back only when I realised how unhappy she was," says Neena. She returned, went along with a friend to SNDT and signed up for the course not knowing where it would lead her. It helped that she takes after her mother, and has a keen sense of design.
LEARNING TO COPE
Masaba has been used to the unpreparedness of sudden turns of fate. As a child born out of wedlock to Neena Gupta and cricketer Vivian Richards, she has always been an object of curiosity. Neena did not sit her down for a heart to heart, she simply chose to tell her the truth; and that was that. In one of her ruminations (she often puts down her thoughts in a diary) she says: "My mother is white, my father is black. They call me half caste or whatever, well I don't dip on anybody's side. I don't dip on either side. I dip on God's side; the one who created me and caused me to come from black and white."
"I was born out of a pure relationship. People do not think much of adultery within marriage. So why do they question this? I have learnt to take it from this ear and out of the other," she says gesticulating.
Till about some years ago Neena and Viv tried to work it out, eventually deciding to go their separate ways. Masaba speaks to her father now and then, but has tutored herself to "become indifferent to what is not there, to people who have gone by". "There is no malice in her," says Neena. "I have explained that that's just the sort of person Viv is. Look around you, no one's life is full. And yet, you are very privileged."
Neena once said that the course of her life was determined by relationships. Does Masaba feel likewise? "You should never make any relationship in your life a priority because then you lose track of who you are. I have learnt not to trust anyone. I have but one friend. I have seen a lot in life, a lot of fake people. You have to be very careful," says Masaba, who is close to her stepfather Vivek Mehra’s nieces and nephews.
THE VIV YOU DIDN’T KNOW
Back in the day when Viv was around, a young Masaba would often be startled by his observations about her friends. He would point out that not many would last a lifetime, and that she should not trust very easily. It was almost like a prophecy; only one person from that group is still a friend; you'll see, you'll learn, he said at the time. "I have never seen my father cry, except once when he heard on TV that his friend Malcolm Marshall had passed away. He told me then that he had lost his only friend, and that Marshall loved him for the person that he was, not because he was a celebrity," she says.
Once when he was seven in Antigua, Viv returned home weeping, his face bruised after a white boy had hurled a stone at him. His stern father, a jailer and previously a slave himself, told him never to break down in front of a white man, for they do not know the real strength of a black man. "When I recalled this story much later, I realised that he was actually preparing me for the future."
She admits that she grew up not sure of who she was, at odds with an athletic body, a mass of curls and a heavily acnaed face. "Boys never looked at me. I was always one of them," she laughs. "It is only much later that I realized that people pay loads of money to get my kind of hair and go hard at gyms to build muscles. I have never had to do any of that," she says. "I was told how huge my backside is, how curly my hair is or why I dance so damn well. I am truly the best of both cultures. I understand myself much better now." To quote from her casual autobiographical essay, off the diary: "When your coffee is too strong, you put some cream to make it weak. But if you pour too much you'll never know you had coffee. It's important to be black, or you'll never know strength."