He’s never been to school but he’s authored a book and has a library cafe in Mumbai, finds Parvathi Benu, in conversation with the thought-provoking Amin Sheikh
A former street kid and a true-blue Mumbaikar — that is how Amin Sheikh describes himself. But he is much more than that. Being someone who’s never been to school, the 36-year-old is the author of the book Life is Life and has recently opened a library cafe in Mumbai named ‘Bombay to Barcelona’. For Amin, these are the two cities that have changed his life. While he was born in one, the other showed him a different side of life.
When Amin and I were trying to find a mutually convenient time to chat over a telephone call, he suggested the inordinately early hour of eight in the morning, “as there won’t be many customers in the cafe at that time”, and he prefers attending to the customers himself. While I was still jostling with the idea of doing an interview at that hour, he said with an innate tinge of sincerity, “Ma’am, if there are many customers, I may not attend your call. But I’ll surely call you back!” That did the trick.
I agreed but, in return, I told him to not call me ma’am. Amin’s reply was candid and unusual. Much like his whole persona, “I do not know you personally. I was taught to call everyone sir or ma’am until they’re a good friend of mine.” True that. When I called him the next morning, his caller tune (the jangling “Yeh dil hai mushkil..Bombay meri jaan) was a perfect lead in to the conversation that followed. To my luck (and grumpy consternation), he reassured, “It’s good that you called at this hour. There is no one in the cafe now.”
And then we got chatting. This is how it went...
First things first. You really seem to obsessively love Mumbai. Why is that?
My love for Mumbai is beyond words. This is where I grew up. Today, this is called a ‘progressed’ city but I’m not very happy as I feel it is being killed. The greens are turning to grey. I hope people realise their mistake. Yet for me it is the best place in the world. It is the most happening place where hopes and dreams sprout.
Have you been to school?
(laughs) No. I’m Municipality Ulti party. That is a street boy’s way of saying, ‘I don’t think that you need to be educated in order to do good.’
All right, tell me a little more about your life.
I was born in a slum in North Mumbai. My parents were very poor. My father was an alcoholic and so my mother remarried. My stepfather never liked me. Life began at the age of five when I started working in a tea shop. I used to work for 10 hours for Rs 2 a day. One day while I was playing, I tripped and broke the glasses. Frightened, I ran away. I saw many kinds of people on my journey. I lived on the streets and did odd jobs. One day out of desperation, I even ate a potato out of the garbage can. Some people tried to take me home as an unpaid servant, some tried to rape me. Life wasn’t easy. I lived that way for three years. Then one day, Sister Seraphine found me and gave me a home at Snehasadan. She changed my life. Life there was pretty good, everyone loved each other. The discipline and environment in Snehasadan was exactly what I needed as an eight-year-old. But unfortunately, I could not accept the kind of lifestyle there and ran away again.
What happened then?
I met the real inspiration in my life. Father Plassey saw me begging. He held my hands and asked, “What happened?” I went back to Snehasadan and never ran away again. I don’t believe in a god I can’t see but rather that the real God is the goodness you find around you. I want to do good, live good, and end good. I was sent back to my parents but unfortunately, life was back to the old routine. I was living on the streets, doing odd jobs again. Father Plassey saved me once more. He has saved around 40,000 children and brought them back to life. One day when I was 17, he sent me to work with Eustace.
The name sounds familiar. Who was he?
Eustace Fernandes was a very famous artist and he created the Amul girl. He moulded me to be a good human. I was his driver, cook and cleaner. When I started working for him, there was a huge communication gap as I did not speak English and he did not speak Hindi. Under his guidance, I began speaking English and met more people. I improved over the years. Being a driver, I started my own travel company ‘Sneha Travels’ in 2002 with Eustace’s help. He bought me my first car. He was and will always be the best boss. Every Christmas, he would buy me gifts. Then one Christmas, I requested him to take me to Barcelona.
What did Eustace say? And why Barcelona?
Eustace’s sister lived there and he would go every year to visit. He was initially shocked. He asked me if I was out of my mind. That had hurt me and he was upset too. But then, on Christmas, there was an envelope informing me that we were going to Barcelona for 45 days in April. I was so excited to travel by flight and to get the window seat. I even shouted when the flight took off. The first thing that I noticed after reaching Barcelona was that no child was begging on the streets. There were no restrictions. Nobody discriminated against me. Soon, I went every two years. I made a lot of friends there who’d stay with me when they would come to India.
When did the idea of a library cafe and a book come about?
In 2010, my boss passed away. I was depressed and I thought I should do something different. Then I wrote to Oprah Winfrey, asking her if I could be on her show. I did not get a reply. Then I began to talk to Dr Martha Miguel from Spain, who built a hospital in Odisha. She had even written a book and I was quite surprised. I wanted to write a book for so long and finally I decided to write it and self-published it too. Today, I have it in eight languages. Without any publicity, I sold around 12,000 copies. I hadn’t read a book until then. A few friends of mine helped me correct my grammar.
And eventually you have worked your way to opening a cafe. How did that happen?
India has a huge contrast of society. On one hand, there are people with all the riches and on the other, there are children begging and dying on the streets. None of them are protected. This is something that we need to change, which is why I opened this cafe. Here we essay the thought that removes the plus and minus and replaces it with an equal sign. We have both AC and non-AC sections, that serve the same quality of food. We serve free food too. I have kids from the slums coming here to have a cup of hot chocolate. Education in India has recently become about winning and being selfish. Everyone thinks only about their children or themselves. That isn’t a bad thing, but it would be better to work together.
Being someone who doesn’t read at all, why did you start a library cafe?
In Barcelona, I’ve been to a few library cafes. I like the ambience there and I wanted something like this in India too. In my cafe, you can host events, read and conduct exhibitions.
What can you do to bring about a change?
I cannot do something big, but I do my share. People are becoming very demanding. If all of us unite together, we can make a beautiful change. How did we get our freedom? It was because we were united. No change can come without unity. If we do not take the initiative today, we’re leaving a dismal future for our children. To do bad it takes just a second, but to undo it takes a lifetime. In our house, we just had one kerosene lamp, which used to brighten the whole room. What I observed is that the flame takes a very long time to grow brighter, but it surely illuminated the whole room. That is how the goodness in this world is. Let me ask you, when you go trekking what do you find?
Greenery and beautiful places.
Okay. But what else? Think again.
These days, you find garbage.
Exactly. Everyone is educated. People go to these beautiful places on a holiday but end up polluting it with garbage. We just talk about humanity and spirituality but consciously, everyone is destroying everything.