The term ‘street child’ is commonly used for children who live solely on the street, sleeping rough, finding shelter where they best can. Some spend their days in public spaces before returning to a family or similar support structure in the evening.
They are often viewed as a problem, but the actual experiences of a child on the street are easily lost. As a child, Amin Sheikh begged on the streets, worked at tea stalls, and picked food from garbage bins in the city. Today, he owns a travel and tourism company in Mumbai and has written an autobiography -- Bombay Mumbai, Life is life: I am because of you. Sheikh was regularly in touch with his mother, but never felt close enough to live with her. He says, “Though my mom loved me a lot, I never felt loved. Her partner was always very rough and brutal.
He used to hit me a lot.” After living on the streets, Sheikh started living at Snehasadan, a home for street kids. Soon after, he started working and living with well-known adman the late Eustace Fernandes, best known for being the creator of the Amul girl. Although he was never officially adopted by Fernandes, Sheikh considered him his father. “He gave me a new beginning. I learned so much from him. He educated me, loved me and made me who I am today. Without him, I don’t know, I could still be on the streets. Now I am hoping to adopt a child one day, I want to be a father so desperately,” says Sheikh.
Aiming to fulfil his dream of establishing a coffee shop-cum-library in Mumbai which will employ street children, Sheikh has written an autobiography detailing his life’s journey growing up on the Mumbai streets. After losing his manuscript twice, having it re-written in “correct English” by friends and completing his book, in just over one year, Sheikh says, “My aim is to support as many children as I can. Make them realize their dreams and provide them with all the things that I missed out on. Many children struggle to cope with their lives on the street. And my coffee shop will give them a place, where they can sharpen their skills, and be respected and loved. I also hope to serve the best coffee in town. My dream is Café Bombay to Barcelona, and to achieve that, I have written this book -- Life is life, I am because of you.”
Scraps of kindness
I roamed the Western railway: Dadar, Grant Road, Borivali stations. I was never in one place. I went up and down, in and out of Bombay. I was always nice to get on to the big trains that took me out of Bombay, but it took ever so long to get back.
One night, I was in Borivali station. Outside, I saw an ice cream shop where many people and families came to eat. I went there to beg. Most people ignored me of course, but some people gave small pieces and -- mmm! -- I loved it. Then I started to ask for more and more. I begged for a long time, until the man who was selling the ice cream shouted something at me. I shouted back at him.
He was very angry, he caught me and slapped me and pushed me away onto the road saying, “Go away, if I see you here again, I will hit you; I don’t want to see you here again”. I asked him if he owned the place. He pushed me again and I fell to the ground crying.
Suddenly I heard a very gentle voice asking, “Do you want to eat ice cream?” The man who asked this question was not eating ice cream, he was just sleeping on the side of the road, in a corner. I said yes. He got up and bought me an ice cream. I was not sure if he was a good man. So after I finished my ice cream, I fled from there, without once looking back to see if he was coming after me. I just ran and went to sleep somewhere under a bridge.
The next day I went again to the ice cream place and saw the same man who had bought me the ice cream the previous night. He asked me why I had run away. I did not answer him; I began to ask people to buy me an ice cream again. The ice cream man looked at me angrily and when I saw his angry eyes, I stopped begging. I just stood there in front of the ice cream shop. Some people gave me some money but not ice cream.
The kind man began talking to me, asking me why I was begging, where my parents were. By now I was tired of such questions and told him very angrily that I had nobody. He asked why I was begging when I could work or collect garbage and sell it. With this money, he said, you can do whatever you want, you are a big boy now.
I asked him to buy me an ice cream and he did. I felt he was a nice man -- so I told him I did not know how to do all these things he was suggesting. I was with him there for a long time. When I fell asleep he held me close. But there was no sex, none of the bad things. I was in a deep sleep and when I woke up in the morning, he gave me tea and paav (bread) with butter. He told me he was going to work. So I asked if I could go along.
I don't remember his name but I would call Mama, which means uncle. He really was a wonderful man and I learnt a lot from him. When I went with him, I saw that he carried a big bag. This made me ask him if he kidnapped children. “Why do you ask that?” he wanted to know. I told him that some children on the station had told me I had to be careful with people who carried big bags -- because they took you far away and they killed you under some bridge. He smiled and asked me to look into the bag. In it were bottles, scrap metals, paper and plastic, things he had picked up from the gutter or from garbage dumps.
He carried some metal instrument in his and with which he sifted through the garbage, trying to see if there were bottles or metal things: anything basically that he could sell at the recycling market. He told me all this and said that if we sold something, we could go and eat and perhaps see a movie. That was my first day with him and I was very happy. I couldn’t stop smiling all day.
The next day I went with him again, learning that he never went to the same place twice. I asked him why and he explained that he was not the only person to do this work, that there were many like him. Sometimes you had to change the place you went to. If you were lucky you were the first, but often somebody else would get there ahead of you. So sometimes your bag could be full and sometimes empty.
Priced at Rs 300, Bombay Mumbai, Life is life I am because of you is available at Kitab Khana (Fort) and on Amazon.com