Mumbai: The mean streets of Mumbai are not meant for a child and Amin Shaikh, who has published his autobiography and now owns a trendy cafe in suburban Andheri, cannot forget his growing years as a street kid.
His working life started at the age of five, when he ran away from home, did odd jobs, scrounged through garbage bins to collect trash and pick up a stale meal, begged for money and food, slept on roads and railway stations and was a victim of ‘bad people’ who physically and sexually hurt him.
Several times he went back to his mother and stepfather who always beat him mercilessly and his two younger sisters Sabira and Sabiha, whom he loved dearly — but run he did.
His is an amazing, inspiring and heart-wrenching story and rising up to where he is now has been no simple feat.
At 35, he looks a confident, successful man but he insists, “Luck has no role in what I am.”
Speaking to Gulf News at his restaurant tucked away in a road behind Marol Naka metro station in Andheri East, he admits that he has achieved what no street child could dream of.
His ambition to open a cafe came true as he struggled to get his savings, earnings from various jobs, including a newspaper business and running a car rental firm and from the proceeds of his book, “Life is Life, I Am Because of You,” written in his own words with help from friends which went towards setting up the Bombay to Barcelona Library Café. “It cost me Rs620,000 (Dh35,141) to set it up,” he says proudly.
His cafe is a cosy, happy little place and what is unique is that it is “run by youngsters from the street, slum and orphanage, same background as me.”
Offering an eclectic taste in cuisine as well as decor, the small cafe has received tons of praise from customers of all ages and most are naturally impressed by the courteous and well-trained staff. It is among Trip Advisor’s popular joints. “Here, nobody is boss, everybody earns the same salary,” says Shaikh. “Whatever profit comes, we pay the rent and for the education of these kids — who are learning what they want and not what the world, society or family wants,” stresses Shaikh.
Better life for street kids
Though he himself disliked studying and was not fond of reading, he makes sure that his guests are free to browse through the books from the shelves in his cafe. “I’m trying to open a bigger cafe since we do live music, concerts, group discussion, art and photography sessions, psychological and corporate talks. The new one, five to seven times bigger will be in this locality as I live here.”
The just-married Shaikh adds, “I believe social impact is very important to change society and our cafe is giving this message to the world that being street kids we can do this much and surely an educated person can do 1000 times better than us.”
Committed to improving the lot of street children, he says, “If I’ve brought change in the life of one street child, I think I’ve made a better world.”
Amid his busy life and success, there’s always a sense of bitterness, he admits. “I am bitter as I know what is pain. If you don’t know what is pain you don’t know what is joy actually.” He expects Indian society to do far more for poverty-stricken, helpless children and is saddened by the hypocrisy and apathetic attitude in India towards the poor.
Memories of pain
Though he takes care of his entire family now, (one sister is a nurse with Doctors without Borders and another his chief chef), memories of the pain that he endured as a little child have never faded and is always fresh in his thoughts.
Recalling his traumatic days, he says when he worked at a tea shop, “I had to serve tea to everyone and then wash the glasses clean. At the end of the day, the shopkeeper gave me two rupees! The owner would twist my ear if I did not wipe the tables properly, if a glass broke, or I split the tea.” One day, the glasses slipped from his hand and broke and as fear gripped his heart, the thought came, “Run Amin, run, run …”
Life changed at eight when an angel in the form of a nun, Sister Seraphine, took him into Snehasadan shelter for the homeless, at a time when Dadar station had become his home. He refused to go with her but let his sister be taken, A few days later she came back for him. This time he went with her and realised he wasn’t the only child who had run away from home. He was given clothes, a cupboard and bathed with hot water and salt as he had a lot of boils on his body.
When he left the orphanage after 10 years at the age of 18, another caring human being, Eustace Fernandes, an artist and adman, gave him a direction in life when he worked for him as his Man Friday and later became like a family member. Perhaps, the course of his life would not have been the same if these two people did not give him the freedom to choose his destiny.
Once, on Christmas Eve in 2002, “Eustace asked me what I wanted as a Christmas gift. I said nothing,” and when he insisted, Shaikh said he wanted to go to Barcelona in Spain. Eustace’s sister and husband and several friends from Barcelona regularly visited Mumbai and he had heard about the place. At first, his employer said he was crazy, but later, he relented and took him along.
“Barcelona was a shock to me as I saw no street children or families living on the street.” The connection with that lovely place was enduring and so was born the name of his cafe. And now, “may be in five years, I’m planning a similar cafe in Barcelona to have a bridge between these two cities.” It would be naturally called Barcelona to Bombay Café.