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Excerpt: The boy from Bihar who designs shoes for stars

August 20, 2012 11:04 IST
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We present to you an excerpt from Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw in Dharavi and Why It Matters by Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi.

Here is the story of Jameel Shah who ran away from home to take charge of his life. He now lives in Dharavi and runs a successful shoemaking company that makes shoes for Bollywood stars among others.

I never knew English…now I have my own Facebook page."

Every room in Dharavi is 10 x 10. But this, is like no other. No crush of humanity, no pots and pans, no spices hanging heavy in the air.

The room is almost spacious, since it is so bare.

There are shiny, cream Marbonite tiles on the floor. A tiny refrigerator and a drum of water in one corner. And a washroom right next to it.

"Only for bath," explains Jameel, as we stare in amazement. "I can't build a toilet, unfortunately."

Jameel is what you can call a genuine Dharavi 'success story'. Unlike so many we met in Dharavi, it wasn't his grandfather or great-grandfather who settled here when it was marshland.

Jameel Shah came to Dharavi from a small village in Bihar, in the year 1995. Like any young boy from Bihar, he became a kaarigar at a workshop, for a salary of Rs 2,000.

Fifteen short years later, he is running his own workshop. And not just any workshop. Jameel Shah makes 'dancing shoes' for the most exquisite feet in the country.

"See," he says, holding up a beautiful pair of blue satin heels, "this is for Bipasha Basu."

Bollywood stars like Katrina Kaif, Priyanka Chopra and Hrithik Roshan are among his 'regular clients'.

The story of Jameel Shah itself, could be made into a Bollywood film.

Born in a village in Bihar's Darbhanga district, Jameel is the oldest among four brothers and four sisters. His father was a landless labourer earning barely enough for two meals a day.

Jameel attended a madrasa run by the local mosque. One morning, he asked for money to buy a pen and notebook. There was none to spare.

In a fit of anger, he screamed at his father, "Mera haq banta hai ki main padoon."

And in that anger, Jameel ran away from home with a friend. He was ten years old.
He landed up in Delhi and worked at Navi Kareem, an area near Paharganj, housing hundreds of small workshops. Similar to Dharavi.

"I started making wallets and bags," recalls Jameel.

But it was not enough for him.

"I had seen so many films, I thought bade log all live in Bombay. I thought, to make money and make it big, I must also go to Bombay."

Thus, Jameel Shah arrived in Mumbai with a distant uncle. Initially, he worked in Bhiwandi, at a power loom. But the work was not to his liking.

"I had to stand and work there for 10-12 hours every day," says Jameel. "So I left it and came to Dharavi."

Through the village network, he located some boys to share a room with, and also got a job. Working in a leather factory by day, on nights and weekends Jameel Shah started a small side business.

"Mobile covers were becoming popular, so I started selling them at VT and Manish Market."

Thanks to his extra income, Jameel managed to save Rs 25,000. But, he lent the money to the brother of a friend, not knowing the fellow was a rascal.

One fine day, Jameel realised his life's savings were gone. He borrowed Rs 1,000 from his seth to pursue the cheat and recover his cash. But when he reached Bangalore, the man had fled to Delhi.

"I did not even have money to eat," says Jameel. "I tried to get a job in a socks factory, but they said I need pehchaan."

It was a Bihari watchman at the Broadway Hotel who helped Jameel get some work. And another accident of fate brought him into the home of 'Thomas Aunty'.

An old lady living alone in a bungalow, who needed help with odd-jobs at home.

"Aunty became so fond of me she said, 'Stay here with me. I will look after you. Treat you like my own son.'"

But Jameel refused.

He said, "Aap dua karo. ki main acchha karoon; wohi bahut hai mere liye."

One important thing happened in Bangalore. A man named Jacob who rented the room above Aunty's garage took him to a salsa dancing class.

"I danced and I learnt something new. I wanted to learn more, but I did not have money."

Eventually, Jameel returned to Mumbai, to his old employer in Dharavi. But the 'dancing bug' remained in his head.

He looked up advertisements in Mid Day and went searching for a class to join. That's how he met Sandip Soparrkar.

"First time I met Sandip sir, I said, 'I really want to learn dance, but I cannot give the full fees right now. Can I pay you little by little?'"

Sandip agreed.

Jameel not only learnt dancing, but also started helping with shows.

One thing every dancer needs is 'dancing shoes'. Back in the year 2000, the only way to get a decent pair was to buy them abroad.

One day, Sandip turned to Jameel and remarked, "You are in leather line…can you make a shoe like this for me in Dharavi?"

Jameel jumped up and said "Yes! Why not!!"

He took a couple of sample shoes and tried to make copies.

"I worked very hard at it, but I could only make kaam chalau quality."

However, Sandip loved the vibrant colours and took the shoes anyway.

"That boosted my confidence and I kept trying to do better and better."

Slowly, people started asking for Jameel's shoes. And he was faced with a dilemma.

"I was getting the shoes made in Byculla, but was not happy with the result. I thought, if I am getting orders, I need to have my own workshop."

In 2005, Jameel quit his job and started his own business.

Dancing shoes are special shoes - they are very light, just like wearing socks. Each shoe must be custom-designed to the dancer's foot.

"We use leather, but nowadays, more of velvet and satin. Everything we need is available in Dharavi, except for satin."

With trial and error and perseverance, the quality of Jameel's shoes improved.

"People started saying, 'Why buy from abroad, I can buy just as good and cheaper from Jameel.'"

The young man opened a bank account.

One fine day, the bank called and offered a personal loan of Rs 3 lakh. Jameel haggled for more. Ultimately, the bank disbursed Rs 5 lakh.

"I took the money, borrowed some more from here and there and bought this room for Rs 8 lakh."

This was in the year 2007.

Jameel's name and fame was growing in dance circles. One morning, he got a call from Priyanka Chopra's secretary.

"Madam wants to order your shoes," was the message.

Samples were sent over and a drawing of madam's foot requested. Three pairs of dancing shoes, ready to go!

And that was just the beginning. 'Shah Shoes' clients include Katrina Kaif, Kylie Minogue, Farah Khan, Kajol, and Hrithik Roshan.

"All the TV shows, like 'Jhalak Dikhla Ja' and 'Dance India Dance', order shoes from me," says Jameel.

And he insists on 'advance' because showbiz is a slippery business.

"I first take the money and then hand over the shoe," he grins. "Baad mein paise ka lafda nahin."

Today, Jameel employs four kaarigars, and makes around sixty pairs a month. The shoes sell for Rs 1,500-2,000, depending on the style.

And Jameel is a stylish young man now, himself.

"I never knew English or how to use computers," he says. "Now I have a page of my own on Facebook."

Meanwhile, one of his brothers has joined the business while he supports two younger ones who are in school. His dream is to see one of them become a doctor and the other a lawyer.
"Baaki unki marzi, unki kismet," he shrugs.

Jameel wants to expand his business further.

"I have just spent Rs 2.5 lakh to renovate this place," he says.

The workshop is right above the living area. And there is a third floor, empty right now, but ready for use when orders increase.

Jameel's workshop is in 'Sector 5', the sector which DRP has promised will be the first to be redeveloped. But that does not worry him.

"First of all, redevelopment hone wala nahin hai. But in case it happens, I have all the papers."

In any case, Jameel Shah has bigger dreams.

"There is a building in Juhu, with a view of the sea. I always dream of buying a house there someday."

Well, who knows? The boy from Bihar who once slept in an auto now designs shoes for the stars. And Jameel believes if he can do it, so can any young boy who comes to the city today.

"Mere jaise insaan ko agar life mein kuch karna hai to Dharavi mein aana chahiye."

You get a cheap place to stay, you get a job. What you make of yourself thereon depends on the strength of your hands, the passion in your heart.

Dharavi is the 'incubator' which made it possible.

A shack under a tin roof, a factory of dreams.

Poor Little Rich Slum: What We Saw in Dharavi and Why It Matters by Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi, photographs by Dee Gandhi. Price: Rs 250

Reproduced with kind permission of Westland Publishers



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