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From Paharganj streets to Atlanta: A love story

She was the girl who passed by the Salaam Baalak Trust with the little dog. That’s how Cristina Maria Kameika identified herself in the email she wrote to Javed....

Written by Chinki Sinha | New Delhi |
July 11, 2010 4:13:56 am

She was the girl who passed by the Salaam Baalak Trust with the little dog. That’s how Cristina Maria Kameika identified herself in the email she wrote to Javed,the tour guide,the man who grew up on the city’s streets getting high on Tipp-ex and subsequently redeemed himself,crossed over to the other side of the street and was conducting guided tours of the lives of the street children in Delhi.

“I had even thought for a second,‘Wow! I think this is the one!’ I felt a strong attraction and connection,” she wrote on October 1,2007,a year after the two first met—an American girl who was in India travelling and volunteering,and Javed,a runaway child from Bihar who battled the city’s brutal streets,slept with dogs and ate leftover food,and later lived in a shelter run by the trust founded by award-winningfilm Director Mira Nair in 1988,and continued his studies.

Javed wrote back ‘I am but anything. You are everything.’

It took Cristina nine more trips to India to figure out her attraction. It was love. Three years later,the two got married earlier this year in Atlanta,Georgia,where she lives with her father,a captain with Delta Air Lines.

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Over the phone from Atlanta,26-year-old Javed’s voice is peppered with a slight accent and he refers to his village as “countryside.” He is adapting to his new life in an apartment next to his father-in-law’s place. Now he drives a Honda CRV and is trying to apply for a Master’s programme in a university there.

Tom,Cristina’s father,is also helping him find a job as a translator with the airlines. “I have to start somewhere,” he says.

Four years ago,he had seen Cristina walk towards him at Aasra,a night shelter for homeless children near Hanuman Mandir. He says he loved her laughter and her short hair. She had a dog—Rocky—and she came looking to volunteer at the center. A day ago,Cristina,then 23 years old,had gone on a guided tour,Salaam Baalak Trust City Walk,a walking tour of the city’s Paharganj and New Delhi Railway Station areas aimed at sensitising others about street life and street children. She had seen posters advertising the walk. Later,she landed at the centre wanting to volunteer.

“I liked his smile,” Cristina says. “I had a feeling after five minutes of talking to him that he was the one. It was weird. The feeling was in the stomach. And I thought it was a crazy feeling and I thought what the hell I am American and how can I do this.”

But Cristina kept coming back to the night shelter with her dog under the pretext that she brought Rocky so the kids could play with the dog. She would sit and listen to Javed narrate to her strange stories about his life on the streets,how he spent cold nights curled up in a secret attic with dangling electric wires,how the cold bit into his skin and how he once crashed a big,fat Indian wedding and danced and ate chicken wings until the guards chased him out. Javed,who was studying sociology through distance education from Delhi University,was working as a tour guide for the Salaam Baalak City Walk,an initiative of John Thompson,a volunteer from the UK who spent a lot of time working with the street children in the city. He lived in a one-room tenement at Paharganj and earned only Rs 4,000. A K Tiwari,an educative member at the Salaam Baalak Trust,said Javed had emailed all of them about his marriage and how happy he was. “He was a happy child. But he didn’t want to go home. He belonged to a poor family and then we admitted him to a government school. We are all very happy for him,” he says.

Cristina,Javed says,came from a different world. He didn’t want to lose his only job by proposing her. Besides,those kind of love stories only played at the Sheila Theatre where he watched mushy romance movies with his street buddies. Javed had run away from home when he was eight and lived on the streets of Delhi for more than two years before he was rescued by the trust’s members.

Cristina was looking for signs. She painted lotuses outside a shop in Paharganj. She called Javed to come see those. He didn’t turn up. But Javed had called the number and the landlord said Cristina didn’t live there. She went back to America,broken-hearted. Meanwhile,Javed hung all the paintings that Cristina brought over his bed at the shelter,and at the trust’s office. But she missed him. So she wrote to him and he responded and she was on a flight back to India,to the dusty,grimy streets.

“My mom said yeah,you should go for your dreams and see if this is real. It was so perfect. I went back nine times,” Cristina says.

Cristina’s own parents divorced when she was little. Her mother,who stays in Miami,Florida,attended her wedding. She says the family had no issues with her converting to Islam,or with her taking on a Muslim middle name. “Their marriage broke. Mine won’t. I have never been so happy before. I have never met a guy like him. This is a crazy love story,” she says,her voice laden with excitement.

She even visited Kalyanpur,a village in Munger district of Bihar where Javed’s parents lived. “She wore salwar-kameez and did everything that was in our culture. My mother who was a bit hesitant about me marrying someone outside our religion loved her,” Javed says. Even Cristina’s father flew in from the US to spend time with Javed. The couple got engaged in Delhi and then flew to the US. Cristina changed her name to Cristina Khatoon Kameika and even wore a saree in the small ceremony at their Atlanta house after they registered their marriage at the court.

While Cristina is pursuing her studies from Georgia State University,Javed is hoping he will get a headstart in life,too. Among things he took to the US,he carried the box in which he had kept the printouts of all the emails Cristina had written to him and her lotus paintings.

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