In the beginning
When he speaks, he is gut-wrenching, brutally raw and candid. Without flinching once, he says, “I ran away from home when I was just five years old, unable to bear the torture inflicted on me by my step-father, mother and employer. The first night that I slept on a railway platform, I was raped. Thereafter, every night, unfailingly, everybody there – be it the older boys or people from the very system that was there to protect people like me, did things to me. It was easy for people to find me because I was scared of the dark and always slept in a well-lit area. I sometimes woke up with my pants wet not knowing what had been done to me. I sometimes had men shoving their things in my mouth. I gagged and vomited, but they continued. I felt pain while going to the toilet. There were always people wanting to take me home, but horrible as my life on the platform was, it was preferable to my life at home.”
Meet Amin Sheikh (36) – owner of Bombay to Barcelona – a café library, and an oasis of beauty, set amidst workshops and hardware shops in Marol Naka, Mumbai, directly opposite the Fire Station. While I devour a slice of deliciously moist carrot cake drenched in caramel sauce and wait to finish with the fusion chicken vada pav, Amin speaks to me, his eyes dancing with emotions – sometimes ablaze with anger and pain, sometimes moist and soft with good memories. He recounts his childhood as a ‘street-boy’ in Mumbai, the reasons he was forced to flee home, and why he hated it every time he was ‘found’ and taken back. His eyes exude warmth and his voice softens as he also recalls being discovered by Sister Seraphin and Father Placido Fonseca of Sevasadan and being taken to the first home of his life, which signified love and warmth.
Amin has risen from the ashes so to say. The story of his life is captured in Life is Life, I am Because of You, a book he has written, which has gone into its 7th reprint, and also helped him collect the funds required to open his dream café. The book is not a tear-jerker, despite the potential it had, to become one, given the tumultuous turns Amin’s life has taken. Instead it’s written through the eyes of a child, lost and bewildered, sad and bewildered, pained and bewildered – but bewildered at all times. Amin is still the same – childlike, bewildered, wondering why the world is what it is, when it is so easy to love and be loved.
The child in him is still alive as is evident from the dessert spoons in his cafe, which are actually miniature kitchen toys. The lamps are large kettles with their bottoms sliced-off, bulbs hanging through them – to remind him of the tea shop he worked at when he was just five.
He was forced to run away from home for the first time because he broke a whole pile of tea glasses, which fell from his little hands to the floor and shattered. As he speaks of the tea-shop, he touches his ear and winces, as if still in pain, remembering the way the tea-shop owner had twisted his little ears with little or no reason. “I often complained to my mother about it. She always said I must bear it and I would get used to it. We needed the money that I was earning,” he recollects.
Amin’s life is too vast to be captured in one blog post and hence I will have to scrunch it. Any reader who wants to know more about him is advised to buy his book. Coming back to his story, Amin spent a few years at SnehaSadan – the best years of his life as he repeatedly said while I was with him. His sister Sabira (meaning:morning) too ran away to be with him and they both grew up at SnehaSadan. She is now a nurse.
Then he had the good fortune to be employed by Eustace Fernandes (the father of the Amul Girl, for those who don’t know) for several years. “As a Christmas gift, he took me to Barcelona once, and my life changed forever,” Amin remembers, “I saw my first library there and saw how easy it was to get knowledge. I made up my mind. How would it be if people could meet, get knowledge, eat and drink, all in one place? I decided that I would one day open one a library café, and it would be meant to give livelihood opportunities to street-children like me. Today, here I am; my dream is a reality. I have put all my life’s savings into this venture. I pray it works and serves the purpose for which it was started. Even if it doesn’t, I will keep trying. I know how to ‘fall and rise’.” Everybody who works at Bombay to Barcelona has been a street-child and brings special talents to the café be it baking, cooking or hospitality, or even the grit to survive.
Amin’s other sister Sabiya (meaning:evening) works with him now. His mother lives with him and he talks dispassionately about her. “I needed to forgive her before I could heal, because she gave birth to me after all. But I told her that she had to make a choice between me and that man (his stepfather). She too had had enough of him and his vices. So she walked away from him. I have forgiven her and will look after her. I am so happy she gave me my sisters.”
Amin is a busy man (he is also a tour guide) and it is time to part, though I don’t want to leave his energizing presence. I ask him for a parting message. “I am because of you,” he says.
I look away shamefaced and think, “Amin, you are not because of us. You are despite us. Given a chance, society would have negated, obliterated your presence from this earth. We are because of you and people like you. You are what your name means – the beginning and the end. Continue being you! Don’t ever accept defeat. Don’t ever submit to society’s misbehaviour.GRIN is honoured to host you my friend.”
Written with permission from Amin Sheikh – a very special human.
GRIN thanks KHPT and Sevasadan for making this story possible.