Putting names and histories to the homeless, poor, begging children you see on the streets is not something you do. The scores of nomadic tribes, five year olds carrying babies, seven year olds beating three year olds, ten year olds sharing out scraps of food, all identical with their child-sized bodies with ancient eyes and hungry bellies. They come and go, each in their uniform of city grime and clothes that don’t remember their colour, hair bleached by the sun.
There are the ‘locals’. You see them everyday. You may have the one favourite, you may break your own rules and ask his or her name. You may scold them for not going to school. But you’ve lived too long in this city to know that making any more emotional contact is detrimental to your wellbeing. So you buy them a packet of biscuits or give them something small and walk off, praying an agnostic prayer, trying not to think about how you cannot make a difference.
Amin Sheikh’s book is about people who do make a difference. And it is about people who have helped him make a difference.
It’s hard to imagine a five year old runaway, living on the streets of his beloved Bombay, in stations, and trains and under bridges, protecting his little sister from all the horrors and harm that befall these butterflies of the concrete jungle.
Written simply and without artifice, he tells a gripping, gritty but hopeful story. From working in a tea stall as a tiny little boy, bearing beatings, sexual abuse and hunger, from returning to his home and running away again and again, he traces a well-worn, harsh path that leaves him unbelievably worldly wise at the grand old age of 7.
He is gathered into the bosom of the wonderful Snehasadan, an institution that fosters these children, rehabilitates and educates them and then makes a consistent effort to send them back to their families or out into the world equipped to make a living for themselves. When he runs away from Snehasadan, Fr Placido looks for him for days and takes him back and tells this ‘bhagoda’ that he must never ever run away again. And he doesn’t. He starts a business, he learns to drive, he finds work, he buys his mother a house, he travels to Barcelona, he becomes a man.
I have met Amin once or twice at my friend Vibha’s home. His wide smile and happy disposition are no hint of the rich, colourful, cruel and wonderful lives he has lived. The ‘many Amins’. His book reveals his innate courage, honesty and desire to turn his dreams into reality through sheer hard work and the love and trust of people, including Vibha’s neighbour Eustace in whose home he grows from from ‘Man Friday’ to ‘son’.
The story is fascinating but it is the everyday wisdom gleaned from being so dangerously vulnerable to a world that you are invisible in that is what draws you in. He watches the Bombay riots, the aftermath of the bombings, the lines drawn between Hindu and Muslim, he watches those lines disappear again, his friends get married, his sister becomes a nurse, incomplete circles draw to their inevitable conclusions.Amin typed out the entire book in all caps and then edited it with Vibha and her husband Dilip’s help. The book is interspersed with beautiful photographs of smiling faces at Snehasadan and poignant illustrations by Aina Pongiluppi Gomila. It is self-published.
Amin knows “Life and dreams walk together when you work for them”. After years of pounding the streets, selling newspapers, studying, living on cups of tea, he started a newspaper business that earned him enough money to learn to drive. He also runs Sneha Travels and dreams of creating a library with a café called Bombay To Barcelona.
Amin Sheikh’s “Life is life, I am because of you” made me smile and gasp in horror and fret and cry. It makes me feel less hopeless about the children I see on the street. Most dangerously, it makes me believe I could do something for them too.