Amin Sheikh's phenomenal rise to become a globe-trotting author is the stuff urban legends are made up. Set to open a library café in Mumbai, he shares his story of grit and success with Krutika Behrawala
"MA'AM, my English is not good, so we can talk over the phone instead of chatting over email," admits 35-year-old Amin Sheikh, over the phone line from his one BHK apartment in Andheri (E). Five minutes into the conversation, his tale of hope and determination sounds like a racy fiction page-turner. Except that this one is real. He's lived off food picked from garbage bins when young, been rescued by an NGO, worked as Man Friday to Amul girl creator Eustace Fernandes, founded a private taxi service, and written a best-selling autobiography. Yet, his journey isn't over.
Amin Sheikh at Figueres railway station in Catalonia during his trip to Spain earlier this year
For the last couple of years, he has been gathering funds from the sales of his book to open a library café, Bombay To Barcelona, in Andheri. "We (Sheikh and his team of street boys and girls who will run the café) had planned to buy a space and open it on Christmas but we fell short of funds. Hopefully, we will be able to realise the dream in the next three to four months," shares Sheikh.
Sheikh with Eustace Fernandes
The café will serve muffins, sandwiches, cakes and a range of beverages. It will also offer professional services of carpenters, drivers and welders, all registered with them. "Here, coffee shops are usually meant for the rich. However, our café will be open to all. You can either sip cutting chai or order an espresso. We will serve organic food and the profits will go to building a home for street children and educating them," he says, adding that the project is an individual effort, funded entirely from the book sales and donations, without a professional sponsor.
Born to a couple living in a Malad slum, Sheikh had a rough childhood. To escape the beatings of his stepfather, he began working in a tea shop as a five-year-old. "I would work for eight to 10 hours a day. One day, I broke a glass, got scared and ran away. I arrived at Malad railway station and lived there for three years. I survived by begging, eating from the garbage and polishing shoes. No one can understand the pain of a street child unless they have lived through it," rues Sheikh, whose biggest fear was being hit or getting raped.
With the team that will run Bombay To Barcelona library café
While he would get into trains and travel to other cities, he always wanted to return to Mumbai. "It's a special city for me. Though I suffered here, this city has given me the freedom that no other city would," he says.
At the age of eight, Sister Seraphine of Sneha Sadan, an Andheri-based NGO for homeless children, rescued him. Initially
hesitant, Sheikh ran way from the NGO within six months only to return on the behest of its director, Father Plassey. "He made me promise that I would never run away again, and I kept it. I lived there for 10 years. I could have been a drug addict, criminal or dead, but Sneha Sadan made me a human being," recalls Sheikh, who studied at a municipality school till Class 7 and thrived on odd jobs including that of a newspaper delivery boy and car washer.
In 1998, Sheikh was hired as Man Friday to Eustace Fernandes, the creator of the iconic Amul girl. "I met him through Father Plassey. At that time, I didn't know what 'Man Friday' meant. We would have communication problems and gradually, I learnt the language from him," reveals Sheikh, who got an opportunity to meet Fernandes' friends from various countries, who turned up at his doorstep. "He had friends from every corner of the globe. Through their eyes, I saw a whole new world," he says. Fernandes also helped him set up a solo private taxi service, Sneha Travels in 2002, operational till today, where Sheikh shows the city to tourists, from his POV.
As a Christmas present, Fernandes gifted Sheikh a trip to Barcelona, since the latter had a desire to visit the Spanish city. "As a child, I would stand at the airport and wonder what went on behind those entry gates. I still remember how scared I felt when I stepped into the airport in 2003," recalls Sheikh, who has since then made 12 trips to the city apart from heading to Paris and Norway. "These visits were possible because of the tip savings from Sneha Travels. I have also made friends in these countries, who hosted me," shares Sheikh.
Post the demise of Fernandes in 2010, Sheikh shifted to an apartment in Andheri and began penning his autobiography, that he called Bombay Mumbai: Life Is Life I Am Because Of You. "I created my identity and there were people to support me but I want to tell my story, so that many other Amin Sheikhs can be saved," he says.
Writer-journalist Dilip D'Souza and his wife, Vibha Kamat (Fernandes' neighbours) edited the book that was self-published in 2012. It has been translated into Spanish, French, Catalan, German, Hebrew, Hindi and Marathi, while the Italian and Portuguese versions will be out next July. "I have managed to sell 11,000 copies in six languages. I have sold them at traffic signals, outside churches, at colleges — wherever I get a chance. In fact, in the last one month, I have been begging on the streets, asking people to donate for the library café project. It is my dream and the only way I will be able to give back to society."
Bombay Mumbai: Life Is Life I Am Because Of You, Amin Sheikh, `300, Available at Kitab Khana, Fort or can be bought from the writer; e-book on Kindle and Amazon
To support, log on to www.iambecauseofyou.com