Shilpa Shaikh | Her own life on pause, a 19-year-old became a mother to her sister’s sons

Their father snapping all ties, the boys live with their aunt and uncles; one wants to work on a cruise ship

November 25, 2018 11:07:40 am

When her mother and sister died after a taxi they had just alighted from exploded outside their shanty in Wadi Bunder in South Mumbai, Shilpa Shaikh was only 19 years old. One of five siblings, having dropped out of school after Class VI to help out at home, Shilpa was familiar with the hardscrabble life of Mumbai’s pavement dwellers, but she says nothing could have prepared her to become a parent to her sister’s young sons when she was barely out of her teens.

“My sister Rima left behind two boys. Ramzan was then just 10, and Feroze was not even six. When their father snapped all contact with us about a couple of months later, I just automatically became their mother and father. I was just a 19-year-old kid, and didn’t even realise what the responsibilities meant,” says Shilpa, now 28, unmarried and uncertain about her own future plans.

Braces on her teeth glinting as she smiles, she says her own siblings did not have time to process their grief at the loss of their mother Zarina, leaping headlong into parenting responsibilities to make sure Ramzan and Feroze did not sense the absence of both parents. Both Shilpa’s brothers, in their twenties, are unmarried too. One is an Uber driver while the youngest is looking for work and for any opportunities to pick up some skills. Shilpa herself works as a domestic help, taking a suburban local train from Mankhurd where the family now lives in a small apartment to Mazgaon in South Mumbai.

“Nothing was challenging as such,” says Ramzan, a very slight 19-year-old with a shy smile and dimples. “I don’t remember anything about that day, and after that our aunt was always with us.” Ramzan is completing his Class XI, but is taking a break to complete a certification course in hospitality from the Taj Group, which is also paying the boys’ school and tuition fees. “My dream is to become a chef on a cruise liner. I want to travel the world, and this way I’ll be able to earn money while doing that.”

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Feroze is quieter, unwilling to talk about his struggles in school, but says he likes to play cricket. A fast-bowler, he idolises Lasith Malinga. Neither boy remembers much about their parents. While Zarina had died on the spot, Rima had been rushed to JJ Hospital but died hours later.

Feroze and Ramzan at their home in Tata Nagar, Mankhurd. Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran

“We have all had to grow up in the last nine years,” says Shilpa. Her remaining sister got married and has kids, but none of them completed their education, choosing instead to find work, however poor the remuneration. “But I want Rima’s kids to get better opportunities. My mother ran a scrap metal shop on a pavement in Mazgaon, my brother worked in the docks before he started driving a taxi. My youngest brother is spending his days in a small mobile repair shop trying to make some money. Ramzan and Feroze, I hope, will be the first to break out of our circumstances and do well for themselves.”

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