Amin’s story is different from Bollywood’s angry young man. He is not angry. He is happy, he wants to give back to society.
Sandwiched between a ladies’ beauty parlour and a “gent’s salon’’ on the ground floor of a chawl in Andheri’s Marol area in Mumbai is a cafeteria, Bombay to Barcelona, that has become the talk of the city. It is a cosy little place done up in aquamarine colours with comfortable furniture, spilling onto a verandah where money plant vines tumble out from hanging pots. A blackboard with the day’s specials written in chalk completes the look of a small-town European cafe. It is a wet day, the parting kick before the monsoon recedes for the year. But business is busy. There are backpacking European tourists having masala chai and ajwain cookies as they read Lonely Planet. There are a couple of collegians; during lunch time, corporate types from nearby offices also pop in. Some Gujarati housewives drop over for chai and gupshup. A ten-year-old resident from a neighbouring lower middle class housing society cycles down the street, shouting, “Amin Uncle, your picture is in the newspapers.’’
Amin Sheikh, the 36-year-old proprietor of the cafe, smiles indulgently and calls out, “Do get them when you come for milk shake in the evening.’’ Amin, of course, knows that articles are being written about him every day, but he doesn’t want to puncture the lad’s enthusiasm. After all, it is the little boys and girls like him whom Amin considers his star clientele, though they bring in scarcely any revenue.
Amin’s beginnings were humbler, and starker, than that little boy’s. His journey from the shanty in Malad where he lived with his mother and abusive stepdad to this cafeteria might have been only a few kilometres long geographically, but it spans two worlds—from that of the deprived who rummaged in bins to gobble half-eaten vada pavs to that of the self-made whose future is brimming with untapped potential.
Living on the fringes of tinsel town, Amin’s story is typically a tale that could play out in cinemascope to ensure a Bollywood hit. Here it is in a nutshell: The boy lived with his mother, sister and stepdad in a slum and worked in a tea stall. Hunger and beatings were intrinsic to his life. One day, at age five, he broke a batch of glasses at the shop. Amin stood still for a moment, thinking what next. If he tarried, he would be beaten up by the employer; if he ran home, there was his stepdad and his beatings. He ran away. He spent the next few years running away from home; each time he was brought back, the sexual abuse and harshness of railway platforms seemed more tolerable than branding with fire at home or having his pants pulled down in public at the tea shop.
Years passed, Amin learnt to steal, lie and survive. He received love, rarely and fleetingly. A scrap collector took him under his wings, being the dad Amin never had. But he was taken away by the police and Amin was orphaned again. Then one day, a nun from Sneh Sadan, a church-run orphanage, came into his life and took him to the first loving home that Amin had ever had. There he learnt the finer skills of life, though he soon realised that academics was not his cup of tea. He sold newspapers, cleaned cars and fell in love with football. “Then came the next angel in my life, Eustace Fernandes, creator of the Amul girl.’’ Amin was fascinated by the trips Fernandes took to Barcelona to meet his sister. One day, he mustered up all his courage to ask whether he could go to Barcelona, too. Fernandes was surprised, but a few days later, came with tickets. The kind of Christmas gift which only happens in books.
Barcelona was Amin’s wonderland. Amidst all the charms of the soccer city, he was struck by the cafes, where everyone from the window cleaner to the chic office goer could come and sip a latte. “It wasn’t like India, where only the rich could afford this. I dreamt that day of starting a cafe where all kinds of people could come.’’ Bombay to Barcelona is the culmination of that dream, where treats are priced so affordably that even little children from slums can order a drink and munchie.
But the journey to this cafe was another one of grit and determination. He saved. He started a tour service. He wrote a book, Bombay Mumbai, Life is life, I am because of you, self-published it and sold it on the streets, his comfort zone. It sold. The brutally honest story, written in simple English, moved every reader who leafed through the pages. Strangers contacted him saying, we’ve read your book, can we translate it? It is now available in Marathi, Spanish, Catalan, French and German. “There’s a lot of goodness in this world, madam,’’ says Amin, his hand on his heart. “We see the bad, but every time there’s a good deed, another good deed sticks to it, and you soon have a bunch.’’ It is this sunshine outlook that makes Amin’s story different from Bollywood’s angry young man. Amin is not angry. He is happy, he wants to give back to society. Also, uske paas maa hai (he is reunited with his mother and sister).
The cafe employs nine young men and women, all his “siblings’’ from the orphanage. There’s Khushi, a Sneh Sadan orphan who has just returned from Malta, where she interned with a fashion designer. Khushi is given an entire wall to display her designs, a little push to her fledgling career as designer. “Yes, I can take people that far, the way Eustace did. But it is their dream, they will have to realise it,’’ he says.
Not every day is easy. Recently, some political goons demanded why he was using the word Bombay when the city is Mumbai. “I told them, I’ll change my name to Mumbai. But I won’t change the cafe’s name. They can kill me if they want. They left, instead.’’ Amin, however, likes the sound of his name. He was once advised to change his surname to a Christian-sounding one, to facilitate visas. “I am not religious. I say the blessing before a meal. But I was born Amin Sheikh, that is my identity.’’ When he used to sell his book outside churches, people would sometimes ask, “Amin, who sent you here, to a church?’’ And he would say, “Jesus.’’
Life is getting busy. Recently, he flew to Delhi to give a talk at an entrepreneurs’ meeting. Everyone likes a successful person. Amin wants to write another book, this time exploring religious identity. “But not now. First, I want to find a girl who will marry me.’’ Yes, his next book is awaiting a heroine.