He remembers only their first names. Their faces have long faded. Govind Kumar, 25, a senior technical engineer at Essar Telecom Infrastructure, last saw his parents when he was four years old, on the day he tagged along with them to receive an uncle at Surat station.
As a curious child, he clambered on the train. In the excitement of seeing their guest, his parents, Chandrakant and Shanti, did not notice he had got on until the train pulled out of the station.
That was 1991, just before India began liberalising its economy. There were no cell phones. Today, India has one of the world’s fastest-growing telecom markets.
“I don’t remember what my father did,” said Kumar, who now lives in a spartan room in Andheri (E) that he shares with a friend.
He remembered the day he arrived in Mumbai, weeping as he got off at Virar station, the train’s last stop. A lady took pity on him and took him home. But the next day, he ran off with some street children.
For three months, he lived with them, loitering around Mumbai Central station and eating leftovers from garbage cans.
When he noticed that some of his friends disappeared during mealtime, he followed them and discovered they went to a shelter that gave them food and let them watch TV.
He soon joined it, the Don Bosco Shelter in Wadala, which rehabilitates street boys, giving them housing, informal education and counselling.
“That day, I felt I had finally found a home,” said Kumar, who soon settled in, doing assigned chores such as washing vessels, cleaning bathrooms and tending the garden, and learning to speak fluent Hindi and a little bit of English. His mother tongue, Gujarati, had faded and so had hopes of seeing his family again.
“When Govind came to us, he was a shy child who hardly spoke to anyone,” said Father Steve, who ran the shelter at that time. “But I saw a burning desire in him to do something in life. All he needed was direction.”
“If we studied for two hours, we were released of house duties,” recalled Kumar. “At night, 50 to 100 boys used to spread out mattresses in the hall, laughing and sharing jokes before falling asleep.”
When Kumar was 11, the shelter enrolled him and a few other boys in a municipal school at Nadkarni Park in Wadala. On the basis of an aptitude test, Kumar joined Class 4.
Kumar failed the Class 10 exams the first time, but scored 61% the second time. He then did Class 12 through the National Institute of Open Schooling, scoring 73%.
In 2005, Father Steve sent a group of studious boys to an Industrial Training Institute in Madhya Pradesh, where Kumar got a first-class diploma in electricals.
Once back at the shelter, Kumar’s took a job with a small unit that assembled air conditioners that paid Rs 600 a month. He moved on to Ascom, a communications solution provider, where Kumar learnt to use a computer for the first time.
“At every point in my life, I have had to learn things on my own. I feel I can face any obstacle,” said Kumar, who then lost his job in 2008 during the global recession.
He bounced back quickly, though, and got his current job with the Essar group, whose executives had seen his CV on naukri.com.
Here, his work involves solving the power-related problems of 50 mobile towers in Vile Parle and Andheri (W).
His monthly salary of Rs 15,000 is modest by some standards, but it allowed him to move out of the shelter. He also knows this is just the beginning: to improve his prospects he is doing a Masters in electronics and telecommunications through the University of Mumbai’s distance-learning programme.
He has just enough time to catch the latest Bollywood movies and cook Chinese meals for his friends. He also manages to save Rs 6,000 a month.
“I want to work abroad and buy a house,” he said. “I also want to travel to Surat soon to search for the family I never had and perhaps find the life I never lived.”