Amin Sheikh, a former street child turned entrepreneur, has a stunning success story to tell. So he wrote a book to tell the world that story. His autobiography, “Life is Life, I am Because of You” is a miracle book. Not only is it a smash hit around the world, but strangers from different parts of the world are championing it in any way they can. Though he is basking under all the adoration, his reasons for wanting to be successful are selfless. He wants to open a cafe cum library in the heart of Mumbai. When little Amin had run away from home at the age of five, there was no one to help or protect him. He wants to be there for others like him. So his cafe will employ street children and try to give them as normal a life as possible. “People have no idea what it means to be a street child. Some are even afraid of them. But they didn’t even ask to be born. Why treat them this way?” he fumes. “Well my name is Amin and I know what it means to be one. And I will protect as many as I possibly can. People want the world to change, but that’s all hollow talk. Change doesn’t come until you get down in the shit and clean it yourself. But nobody wants to get their hands dirty.”
Running Away From Home
This is the twenty first century and educated people are okay with little children working. Sure you may not employ a small child, but do you do anything when you pass them working in small shops or other public places?
I was five years old when I ran away from home. My stepfather used to beat me savagely. My mother followed suit. During the day I used to work eight to ten hours a day in a tea shop and be paid two rupees for it. At night I would come home and bear their abuse. Small defenceless children were easy pickings in the tea shop as well. All day long grumpy customers would come in for a sip and just lash out at me- for no reason whatsoever. I still remember the day I decided to run. I was playing and whistling down the road while carrying two trays full of tea glasses. Suddenly I tripped and fell and the glasses smashed to the floor. I could only imagine what kind of beating lay in store for me back at the shop and at home. So I left the smashed glasses there on the road and made my way out of that life.
It broke my heart to leave my little sister at home and escape. But I had no other choice.
The Worst of Times
I arrived at the Malad railway station. I crouched in a corner of the station for hours, feeling deathly scared. People passed me by, asking whether I was lost. Around me were a number of small children who were either begging, cleaning, selling items, scavenging or fighting among themselves. I observed them for a long time, and after a while joined in their games. The station became my home from there on.
It was a very hard life to get used to, but I managed. Initially I ate out of the garbage and robbed people to survive. Then I began going to markets, begging, selling things and even singing on trains to earn money. I was a terrible singer and sometimes I think people paid me money just to shut up.
The older children and adults at the station were terrible. They would force the smaller kids like me to do drugs and smoke. They would push it down our throats and if we protested then the lives would be thrashed out of our bodies. To this day I hate smoking and I cannot stand liquor. But the sexual abuse was the worst. The big children would come and rape us mercilessly. By the age of eight, there was no tragedy on earth that I had not lived through.
One day when I was eight I was playing at Dadar station. It was about 4 pm in the evening when I saw a strangely familiar girl standing near the canteen. That was my little sister Sabira. She had run away from home looking for me. That moment in my life, magic happened.
My sister lived with me at the station for only three or four days. A kind nun by the name of Sister Seraphin came upon us and tried to take us to Snehasadan, an orphanage for street children. I had no idea what she was trying to do but assumed the worst. Living on the station you hear tales about strange adults who take little children to locked rooms and do bad things to them. I took a large stone and tried to kill her. She was injured but thank god she did not give up on me. After hours of explanations I finally relented and I and Sabira came to Snehasadan.
Snehasadan is an orphanage for homeless children but to me it was the best home I will ever have in my life. Even today I ache to go back there and relive those days. For the first time in my life I was protected and cared for. I had nothing and no one to be afraid of. I made the best friends of my life. Materialistically of course there was not much to be had. Every boy owned only three pairs of shirt and pant and we received one new pair every Christmas. But there was love, education, security and friendship. What else does a child need? Ten years I lived there and it was ten years of bliss.
Now that I look back I realize what was most beautiful about my orphanage. It was run by Jesuits but never once did they try to influence us into following their religion. Children of all caste, creed and religion played together inside while all kinds of hate and terror wars raged on outside the walls of my home.
I realized early on that classroom education was not for me. We were sent to Municipal schools and the teachers would mock me unbearably. “Yeh kaun gadha aakey baith gaya hai idhar?” (Who is the donkey sitting in the classroom?) To this day I have bitter feelings about education. It is supposed to change the world and be a solution to all our problems. But all I see is that once people get educated, they only do things for themselves. Education may have gotten us to the moon, but it has left the ones on Earth completely bereft.
I somehow continued till the seventh standard but then dropped out. Whatever I needed to learn, I learnt from Bombay. That is the beauty of this city. She took away everything from me, but then she gave me everything that I am today.
I had been a newspaper delivery boy since I was nine years old. So when I turned sixteen I utilized that experience and started out on my own. I made a stall near a bus stand, put my table on the street. And lo! There was launched my business. Every day I would energetically yell, “Sir sir I give you the best newspaper sir.” Business was very competitive and the louder I yelled the more papers I sold.
Meeting My Mentor
One day father Plassey came to my newspaper stall and told me that he wanted me to come to his office. I said okay but he never showed off. After a few days he showed up again. He used to drive a bullet. The moment I heard the Bullet on my street, I knew it was him. He stared at me, deadly serious, and said, “Tomorrow I want to see you in my office.” This time I showed up.
He told me that I have to go work with Eustace Fernandes. Fernandes was a renowned artist, most famous for creating the ‘Amul Girl’. Every year Eustace would take one child from Snehasadan to his home. That child would become his Man Friday, doing odd chores and errands, and in return would get to live and learn from him.
When I, a child of the streets, arrived at Eustace’s grand home I was awestruck. I had never seen anything like that. Today my own home is like Eustace’s home. But back then that house and that life was so alien to a boy like me. I lived with Eustace for thirteen years. He loved and treated me like family. He was the most talented artist and whatever artistic sense I have, I have learnt from him. When I designed the logo for my coffee shop, I was recreating everything that I had imbibed from him. He was the best boss, the best friend and the best father I could have asked for in my life. From being a Man Friday, I became his son. Sadly he passed away in 2010.
Reuniting With My Family
I had briefly returned to my mother after leaving Snehasadan. But that reunion did not last long. My step father had not changed a whit. All they cared about was the extra money they got from me. So I left again.
In 2006 I bought a house for my mother here in Bombay. She has never had her own home. I do not blame her anymore for what happened in my life. She was a victim of her circumstance just like how I was one. Rather than continuing the blame game, I wanted to break this vicious cycle. The only thing I told her was that I will not pay for or care for my stepfather. She was fine with that.
An Entrepreneur Again
In 2003 Eustace set me up with a second hand car and I started running my own cab company with it. Eustace had a lot of friends and relatives and they were my initial customers. Sometime tourists would hire me but because my English was so bad I felt very self-conscious about them. Eventually I really came to enjoy showing foreigners around Bombay. I made friends with all my customers and they would only call me for transport when they came to India. One day a British woman told me that she had been in a lot of cabs but none showed her Bombay the way I did. “The internet world must know about you Amin,” she told me. When she went back to London, she wrote a fantastic piece on me. It went viral. Now when foreigners came to Bombay they would specifically request for me to drive them around. My business prospered and I bought another car.
My English also improved dramatically. Earlier I spoke like, “Coming coming. Going going. Sitting sitting.” I met the most beautiful people who respected me and treated me like an equal. They made me feel like I had some value. In India a driver is just a driver, just a bloody driver. But when these foreigners visited, they treated me like a human being.
The Christmas Present That Changed My Life:
One day on Christmas, Eustace asked me what I wanted. I said I wanted to go to Barcelona. And he took me.
From here on I realized that my education is travelling. Different people, different worlds and people so different. Travelling through Europe I saw such beautiful libraries and cafes. My heart yearned to sit within them all day long. It was then that I thought to open one such cafe in my own Mumbai. I am not educated. I am not good with books. But I care for people. I can cook for them. Utmost, I want to open a cafe where I can employ street children to work and provide them with a semblance of childhood. My cafe will be called, “Bombay to Barcelona Library Cafe.”
Writing My Book: Life is Life, I am Because of You
In 2010 I bought my own home a few years ago (I cannot live with my mother who is only obsessed with me getting married and have two children). Banks refused to give me a loan. But friends from Bombay, Spain and London helped my dream come true.
Eustace and I used to watch Oprah Winfrey’s show all the time. He used to tell me that I should be on that show. After he passed away I wrote to Winfrey in America, but never received a reply. I had a dream. I knew I wanted to make it big, but had no idea how to go about it. Well Oprah never replied, so that was that.
One day a Spanish client of mine, Martha Mquel, called me up from Barcelona. She said, “Amin I am writing a book to raise funds for a hospital in Barcelona.” She wanted me to tell my customers about her book. I was baffled. I told her that she was a doctor. How could she be writing a book? She went into peals of laughter and said that anyone who wanted to write a book could ‘jolly well write a book.’
That got me thinking. If Martha could write a book and raise funds for a hospital, then why the hell was I waiting for someone else to come and make my dreams come true? I could write my own story and make my own dreams come true.
I began writing my book. It took me eleven months to write it, during which time I managed to lose my manuscript quite a few times. Also the entire thing was written with no thought to grammar and spelling. But once again my friends proved to be my closest treasure. They rallied together to design the book cover, edit, promote and do anything that makes a book a book.
Angels All Around the World:
I self-published my book and would stand on the streets selling copies. But so far it has sold thousands of copies. The international publishing house Hachete bought the copyright to release it in France. Once people heard about my dream of wanting to open Bombay to Barcelona cafe, friends and strangers from Europe and America came together to help make my dream come true.
Translators from Italy, Catalan and other parts of the world have offered to translate my book pro bono in their languages. American designer Stephane Boss has launched a line of T Shirts, the proceeds from whose sale will be donated for my cafe. The first time I was in Europe I had met singer and composer Jeremy Plank. He said he found my story so inspiring that he would make a song for me that would be included in his next album. On my last visit there we went to my favourite restaurant and he sang the song in front of everyone there. I did not understand a word, but the melody touched my soul. The song, Les yeux de Séraphine (Seraphine’s eyes) written by French songwriter Arnaud Kerane, will be out in twenty days. My book has been discussed on Spanish radio and French newspapers. I am humbled and touched at the solidarity people have shown in coming together. I have raised about twenty percent of the funds required for my cafe. But at the rate life is going, I have no trouble thinking that the rest eighty will show up soon.
If you think you can do it, you are right. If you think you can’t do it, then too you are right. It’s your life. Decide what you want to do, but don’t settle for less than what you deserve.
You can check out Amin’s book here