Bombay To Barcelona And Back

A café for the street children of Mumbai.

Although the rain had turned the streets into muck filled pathways and the morning into a gloomy one, it failed to dampen my enthusiasm. After waiting three months I was finally on my way to meet Amin Sheikh - a man perhaps not known to the world but one we could learn much from. A man who single handedly started a café in Mumbai, open to all but free for street children. Welcome to Bombay to Barcelona.

When I reached the café in Marol at 9:30am, I was welcomed with smiles and the warmth that was similar to the chai I consumed through the day. A few hours here, it became clear to me that inspite of the fact that employees here worked together like a family, attention to detail and precision were not something that could be compromised. I felt that perhaps the best way for me to get to know this man and his story would be to get into the skin of the café. I offered to help around and was given small responsibilities like serving water, and later (when it got crowded) taking orders. It was in-between customers that I got to chat with Amin and learn all about his life.

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Amin - the beginning and the end

Amin Sheikh was only five when he ran away from home, from the turmoil and his abusive step- father. He was 8 and life on the streets was not easy. He resorted to begging, stealing, collecting garbage, polishing shoes and even singing on Mumbai’s local trains. He was also subjected to sexual abuse and rape until Sister Seraphine found him at Dadar station and gave him a new life under the care of an organization called Snehasadan - `a home for the homeless’ as he calls it in his book.

It was here that Amin’s life returned to normalcy. He struggled with studies until opportunity landed on his doorstep in the form of a job with the well-known art director and the mind behind the ‘Amul Girl’ ad Eustace Fernandes. Amin spent years at Fernandes’ home as his right hand.

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The book that started it

Fernandes used to visit Barcelona regularly. The stories he came back with struck a chord with Amin. The Christmas that changed it all was the one when Fernandes asked Amin what he wanted as a present. He describes the feeling in his stomach when he said the words, “I want to go to Barcelona with you” as inexplicable. He says, “I knew who I was and what I was asking for was beyond my means.”

Although initially Fernandes wrote Amin off as a “mad man,” his silent tears and quiet resignation made him change his mind. When he received his first plane ticket from Bombay to Barcelona, Amin’s life changed forever.

“When I was there I saw how equal their society was. Everyone was allowed everywhere. Just because I was poor didn’t mean I couldn’t sit in a café. India wasn’t like this. We have so many poor people and yet we are treated so badly. And I thought what if I open a café like this in Bombay!”

He even tried contacting Oprah Winfrey hoping she would help, but receiving no response he found his own solution. He got the idea of publishing his book from a girl he had met in Barcelona. “When she told me that she had raised enough money to fund a hospital for children I thought I could do the same!” In the next few months he finished his book and hand sold close to 15000 copies by waiting at traffic signals, in front of churches and across the rest of Mumbai city. Some friends he made in Barcelona helped him sell some more copies there. Amin’s dream was now closer to becoming a reality.

Between this and laying the foundations of the café Amin faced a host of new impediments. From being duped to being written off, he braved it all. After 7 long years, he finally succeeded. Today the café bears testimony to his struggles and victories, as it stands tall with gates that are open to all; specially to street children who can eat here for free.

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Lessons in book-keeping

Looking back on his life Amin recollects how staying under the protection of good people helped him become a good human being. Hoping to pay this forward, he has taken in many from Snehasadan who work at the café when they aren’t in school or college. Like Gopala, a 16 year old. His limp makes him drag his leg as he wades his way through the tables and chairs ensuring everything is in its place. And   Shabana, a young girl doing her bachelors from St. Andrews college and the in-house baker. She comes in after class and shows me how to arrange the books in the café. I sift through them and notice that every single book has a message written by whoever donated it. “Amin doesn’t accept any book unless the person writes a message.” Khushboo, the cashier aspires to become a designer. On one corner of the café stands a large chalk-blue wardrobe with beautiful hand crafted garments. This was Amin’s way of giving her a platform.

Free cookies for all

I understand that the café has a life of its own with many little significant details. Chatting with Amin, I pick up on the story behind his exquisite menu. Two restaurant owners he met in Barcelona came to India and spent three months, working tirelessly to train the cooks and draw up a menu. The result was that this café was the hub for some really authentic Spanish food, be it rare varieties of coffee such as Café Bon Bon or Amin’s favorite recommendation - a Spanish and healthier version of fries called Patata Bravas.

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Yours truly serving

Helping around gave me a peek into the lives of these beautiful people. And although the café itself was a salutation to Amin’s fortitude, it was the huddle of happy children who came to collect their free cookies and milk after school who represented Amin’s victory. I left with memories to last me a lifetime, and new friends in Amin, Gopala, Sabiya, Shabnam. But most importantly I left with the courage to take on this city - one where dreams only come true for those who perservere.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com

By Suman Quazi
Photographs by Vinay Datla