In 1970, Father Placido Fonseca became director of Snehasadan, a Jesuit initiative in Mumbai aimed at helping street children find their feet and their dignity. Over the decades, more than 40,000 children passed through the doors of its 17 homes, each group of 20 or 30 cared for by house parents under Fonseca’s affectionate, committed supervision.

Over the next few decades, Snehasadan became a model for child welfare in India. In recognition of his work, Fonseca received a National Award for Child Welfare in 1985.

When Fonseca died on July 31 at the age of 84, several Snehasadan alumni took to social media to express their sorrow. Among them was 41-year-old Amin Sheikh, who spent several years in Snehasadan before going on to start his own cafe.

Many of the workers in his establishment are Snehasadan alumni.

In 2013, Sheikh published a memoir titled Life is Life, I am Because of You, detailing his life as a street child in Mumbai and about his time in Snehasadan. Here is one section detailing Fonseca’s devotion to the children in his care.

Placido Fonseca and Snehasadan residents. Courtesy: Amin Sheikh

Snehasadan. That was the name they gave it. But for me, it was the home of my dreams, the kind you see only in your dreams. Sometimes, all my dreams do not come true, yet this time it seemed like magic and it had become reality. I must tell you about all these great people, what I call The Tree of Snehasadan, who carry all the flowers and the fruit. This tree is made up of all the people who have dedicated their lives to children. What I have and what I have become today is because of Snehasadan. Without its people, Snehasadan is only a name. It is they who have made the name meaningful: Home of Love – and it couldn’t have been one without all these people.

‘The home I had never known’

My house number was 1. In this book I call it a house, but it was the home I had never known. Even today, I get the same feeling when I think of it, or I have to go there. My house parents were Uncle Dominic and Aunty Mary. They had a daughter named Jacinta. Other house parents included Uncle Xavier and Aunty Salvita, with their two daughters Trinette and Esther. There were Uncle Vartaraj and Aunty Shakuntala and their two daughters, Sujata and Deepika. Of course there were many other people like these, but I don’t remember all their names. At the time, Snehasadan had 14 houses. The boys’ homes were run by couples, the girls’ homes by Sisters.

When I came to Snehasadan, in those first few days, I felt very good. I saw children from all over India. Yet it wasn’t strange. It felt like home. Nobody stopped me from doing anything and there were no walls and gates. I had never seen a place like this – it felt like a real home, but with a very large family. In House no. 1, there were 20 children. All asked my name and they began to talk to this new boy and called him names too at times. But I didn’t mind, it was really nice. I did not feel like I had come to a jail or a place where I had nobody. Aunty and Uncle and Jacinta were really like our family, and they really took care of us. And this was a big family! Twenty brothers, Aunty, Uncle and their daughter.

Lost and found

And now the time has come for me to tell you another sad story. There was now an “old boy” at Snehasadan. One day, Aunty told me I had to learn the thank you prayer. I said yes, but I didn’t learn it. Aunty and Uncle have me some more time but I never could remember it. Dadapir tried to teach me to say the prayer at lunch and dinner time. But kept forgetting, it was just too long.

One day, everybody was watching a movie. In those days we only watched the movie that was shown on the TV, because there was no cable network. There was only Doordarshan which showed movies on the weekend. During the week, we watched the news at 9 pm and sometimes, a cartoon.

But that day, everyone was at home watching a movie. Just before it started, Aunty told me that Uncle would come and ask me to say the thank you prayer. Was I ready?...That day I was scared. Everyone was watching the movie and so I went outside.

Again, I did not know what to do, whether to run or not. But I ran.

I remember it was the rainy season and that night there was water everywhere. I had nice clothes on me, so I took them off and naked, began to beg. It was not easy for me to do this again. I was shy, scared of everything around me. But I went to all those places where we got food and money. I felt like going back home, but I was scared of Uncle and Aunty.

Also I knew that the boys would call me bhagoda – meaning the boy that ran away. It also meant that you were not a nice boy, you were somebody who wanted to run. Somehow life had brought this upon me. I missed everyone though – Didi, Father, my friends. While I kept thinking of going back, I stayed away like this for three days.

On the third night – well that night changed my life. Had it not been for that night and that great angel Fr Placie who brought me to Snehasadan I would not be here. What one is life is sometimes really a matter of when someone loves you, when someone cares for you or gives their life to you.

Placido Fonseca meets with the children of Snehasadan alumni. Courtesy: Amin Sheikh

The angel who gave life

That night, I was begging at Dadar station. I think it was eight in the evening and it had been raining that day. I was begging that the canteen inside the station, no clothes on me save some underwear (I was quite shy in these matters).

And when an angel with a warm and tender hand caught hold of my hand. I looked up and it was Fr Placie. Silently, he sat down on the steps at Daadar station. Then he spoke softly: “You know baba, I have been looking for you for three days. And today, before I left home, I prayed and swore that I would not go back until I had found you.”

He did not shout at me or hit me. He just talked – softly and tenderly and with a lot of warmth. He asked me why I had run away and I told him the truth. I told him I had been afraid of Uncle and he said, “And that’s why you run away? Look son, no matter what happens you come and talk to me or Didi, but never run again, promise me.” I said yes and apologised. We talked for a few minutes and he told me were going home.

Just outside the station he bought me to a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. I held onto him on his motorbike and we came home to House no. 1. Father had dinner with all the children and then he went back home. All those days that I was away he had been looking for me. If Fr Placie had not found me that day, I wonder what would have become of me. I would not have been here, my life would not be what it is today, even this book would not have seen the light of day. I suppose you could say that this was my destiny. But it is really thanks to this angel, who gave me life.

And I’m not the only one, there are many stories like mine. He touched the lives of so many – he gave his life to the children in his world. Each of them is somebody now. Some are back with their families. I say these things because of what he did for me, and what I feel about him. He gave me the light that showed me the way. I can only hope that I will be able to pass it on to the others, so that one day there will be no one in this world without love or care, without a home.

Excerpted with permission from Life is Life: I Am Because of You.

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