Sheikh, 34, has been a homeless child, a beggar, a ragpicker, a factory worker, a vendor on a train, a boot polisher, a tea-shop waiter, a newspaper delivery boy and doer of myriad other odd jobs, all before he turned 16. He has run his own newspaper vending business, worked as a household attendant with a family that came to adopt him and now operates his own one-man tourist cab company.
He is also the author of a self-published autobiography, titled Life is Life, I am Because of You, which was published in January 2013.
A year on, Sheikh’s book has attracted attention from across Europe and the US, with enthusiastic readers translating it into French, Spanish and Catalan, writing songs dedicated to him, getting him on Spanish radio shows and helping him find a mainstream publisher. Their aim, says Amin, is to help him launch his dream coffee shop that will employ only street children and be “open to all, rich or poor”.
“People from abroad are very helpful and have even stood on the streets with me to help sell my book,” said Sheikh, who has just returned home to Mumbai after a long trip to Barcelona where he was promoting his book. “Outsiders are often more ready to help than people in India.”
Since its launch, Sheikh has sold 8,000 copies of the book, mostly abroad, and has collected about 20% of the funds he will need for his coffee shop. Although the book is available on online stores like Amazon and iTunes, most of the sales have been through word-of-mouth and street vending, and led to readers emailing him with offers to help in various ways.
In the US, for instance, fashion designer Stephane Boss is selling a line of t-shirts whose proceeds will be donated to Sheikh’s coffee shop project. A Paris-based songwriter Arnaud Kerane, has written a song on Amin’s life that is available on iTunes and will be part of his debut album. In Spain, Sheikh’s book is being discussed in school classrooms and local radio stations.
“By the end of this year, the book will also be translated in Italian, German, Hebrew and Marathi, and none of the translators are charging me,” said Sheikh. At home in Mumbai, a group of media students have made a short film on the book and Sheikh’s life.
The most exciting development so far, however, is the fact that international publishing house Hachette has bought the rights of his book from its French publisher and will now print an edition in France. “This means I will start getting royalties,” said Sheikh.
Running away from home
Sheikh’s autobiography tells the brutal story of a boy who ran away from an abusive slum home when he was five, experienced several years of hunger, assault, sexual abuse and yet, a sense of freedom on the city streets, and who was finally rescued and brought to Snehasadan, a shelter home for children, along with his little sister.
He grew up there, studied up to Class 7, worked with a newspaper vendor and eventually found work at the home of Eustace Fernandes, an artist in Bandra. Fernandes treated Amin like a son, taught him English, helped him set up his cab service and even gifted him his first trip abroad – to Barcelona – on his birthday.
Many of the people who helped Sheikh publish and promote his book are tourists he had driven around the city in his tourist taxi and who eventually became his friends. While Sahir D’Souza – Fernandes’ neighbour and Sheikh’s teenaged friend – helped him write the book in English, the illustrations, layout and cover design were done for free by friends from Spain and France who want to see Amin’s coffee shop become a reality.
“My aim is to see a world where there are no street children,” said Sheikh, who plans to use the coffee shop business as a starting point to fund many other dreams, like launching an ambulance service that will serve remote Indian villages, and setting up a shelter home for older children who need support even after passing out of homes like Snehasadan.
“Some of my friends wonder why I don’t move out of India, but I need to stay in Mumbai where there are street children, so that I can work for them,” said Sheikh.
The name of his dream coffee shop, however, is a tribute to both his favourite cities. “The shop will be called Bombay To Barcelona.”