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HumansBombay_Hero

THE BEATING HEART OF BOMBAY

By Karishma Mehta     14 Oct 2016

Inspired by the social phenomenon surrounding Humans of New York, Karishma Mehta started Humans of Bombay in 2014. She talks about getting strangers to open up and using social media to make a difference

There are certain things our parents teach us when we’re growing up—eat your vegetables, share your toys or go to bed on time—but the one instruction it seems we’re always given is ‘Don’t speak to strangers.’ We grow up with a mindset that every stranger on the street is a potential threat.

When I started Humans of Bombay, I was 21 years old, fresh out of college and with the desire to break that stereotype. Bombay is a fast-paced city of dreams, and approaching a stranger for a quick chat or photo shoot seemed bizarre if not downright stupid. Nine out of the 10 people I approached on my first outing along iconic Marine Drive refused to stop and talk to me.

It was then that I realized that as a society we’ve become averse to human interaction—despite the fact that we have no problem reading about people online, watching videos of them or chatting with them in forums.

I pushed harder to break that barrier, and the first person who agreed to talk to me was a street vendor selling nimbu paani (lemonade), who ended up telling me why she worked—to supplement her husband’s income and buy things for her children. That half-hour chat with a complete stranger was so refreshing that it made me want to push for the same every single day—and that’s what I do now, for a living!


 

‘I’ve been a fakir for a good part of my life, and while traveling the country I’ve found God many times in my life. Not in a temple or a mosque, but almost every day, in different roles. I’ve found God in the young girl who gave up her seat on the bus for an aging man. I’ve found him in a young boy who gave me a bottle of water when I’d been starving and dehydrated for two days, even though I never asked him for it. I’ve found him in the random acts of kindness all around me, no matter where I go.’
‘I’ve been a fakir for a good part of my life, and while traveling the country I’ve found God many times in my life. Not in a temple or a mosque, but almost every day, in different roles. I’ve found God in the young girl who gave up her seat on the bus for an aging man. I’ve found him in a young boy who gave me a bottle of water when I’d been starving and dehydrated for two days, even though I never asked him for it. I’ve found him in the random acts of kindness all around me, no matter where I go.’

‘When it rains heavily, I always think of the 2005 floods. I was stuck under the Parel flyover with a man who wanted to reach his home in Ghatkopar. The water levels were so high, we couldn’t even open the cab door to get drinking water but people started passing vada pav and water from car door to car door until it reached all those who couldn’t reach food stalls. My passenger and I were stuck in my cab for over 10 hours and during that time we spoke about a lot of things—from our families to our dreams.’
‘When it rains heavily, I always think of the 2005 floods. I was stuck under the Parel flyover with a man who wanted to reach his home in Ghatkopar. The water levels were so high, we couldn’t even open the cab door to get drinking water but people started passing vada pav and water from car door to car door until it reached all those who couldn’t reach food stalls. My passenger and I were stuck in my cab for over 10 hours and during that time we spoke about a lot of things—from our families to our dreams.’

 

When I began uploading stories on the Humans of Bombay Facebook page, people took to them like fish to water. I was pleasantly surprised that others resonated with the feeling I had speaking with a stranger—they wanted to know more, they wanted to feel more. Within the first month we had 10,000 organic users, all of whom enjoyed knowing the story behind that nameless face on the street—one they passed every day, but didn’t know anything about.

Slowly but steadily people started accepting strangers, understanding them and on so many occasions celebrating them. For me, that’s the most rewarding part of all of this—that someone who’s a hero in his or her own way is celebrated.


 

‘I’ve been a sweeper since 30 years, and since two years I make my own brooms. A lot of people ask me why I continue to sweep the roads, if I can get a job easily as domestic help, but I take a lot of pride in what I do. I feel I’m helping my country in my own way, no matter how small it may seem. The next time you want to throw something out of your car window, think of me—a 60-year-old woman who sweeps to keep the country clean and stop yourself from doing it.’
‘I’ve been a sweeper since 30 years, and since two years I make my own brooms. A lot of people ask me why I continue to sweep the roads, if I can get a job easily as domestic help, but I take a lot of pride in what I do. I feel I’m helping my country in my own way, no matter how small it may seem. The next time you want to throw something out of your car window, think of me—a 60-year-old woman who sweeps to keep the country clean and stop yourself from doing it.’

 

‘We were engaged for two years before marriage, but because I was from Kanpur and he was from Bombay we couldn’t meet as often. In those days, there was no telephone but thank God for that—I have each and every one of the letters he’s ever written to me and we’ve been married 52 years! There’s only one secret to a relationship like ours—give, give and give! We both have given to each other, without expecting anything in return and that’s why we’re still madly in love—it’s a beautiful feeling.’
‘We were engaged for two years before marriage, but because I was from Kanpur and he was from Bombay we couldn’t meet as often. In those days, there was no telephone but thank God for that—I have each and every one of the letters he’s ever written to me and we’ve been married 52 years! There’s only one secret to a relationship like ours—give, give and give! We both have given to each other, without expecting anything in return and that’s why we’re still madly in love—it’s a beautiful feeling.’

 

One of the stories that has always stayed with me is that of Zaaria Patni (now a dear friend), whom I met on the street and ended up chatting with for over an hour. She endured heinous domestic abuse at the age of 19 and had to fight for custody of her son for six years before she got justice. At the time I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this woman is superhuman.’ I felt tears stinging my eyes and my heart melting as she narrated her ordeal, and I wondered how my readers would react once I shared the story of a divorced, single mother.

Turns out, it melted the hearts of millions of people all over the world as support started pouring in for her, for her courage, for her resilience. She told me that more than 2,000 people messaged her from all over the world and very often strangers stop her when she’s out and tell her that they’ve read her story and are proud of her. Barrier broken; mission partially accomplished.

What’s more is that despite being ‘just’ a digital platform, we’ve been able to bring about significant change. Over the past year we’ve raised more than 5 million rupees for various causes via crowdfunding. Often when I share a story of someone struggling financially, I receive an outburst of emails and messages from people saying ‘We want to help; how can we?’ I wanted to shift the mindset from ‘I wish I could help’ to ‘I feel so happy that I can help’ and that’s what we’ve been doing: From raising money for cancer patients to daughters of sex workers, we’ve changed the idea that social media is all about the likes or shares—it’s about making a difference.

In December 2015 we featured Nihal Bitla, a boy suffering from progeria who spoke about his life lessons and his desires. People all over the world wanted to make his wishes come true and before he passed away this year, three of his biggest wishes—including meeting Bollywood actor Aamir Khan—were all fulfilled!


 

‘The way I look at it I’ve been given a finite time to do everything I love every single day without fear. Above all, I hope that people know that our time here is special and life is incredibly beautiful in every single way.’ Bitla died in May 2016.
‘The way I look at it I’ve been given a finite time to do everything I love every single day without fear. Above all, I hope that people know that our time here is special and life is incredibly beautiful in every single way.’ Bitla died in May 2016.

That’s the power of people who want to do anything, everything, to make someone’s life a little bit better. And that’s why in more ways than one the ‘Humans of’ projects showcase humanity in a world that desperately wants to be reminded that it still exists. I feel incredibly privileged that I can showcase that humanity time and again, and that I am able to work on things that make this world a warmer, happier place.

Looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t succumb to the pressure of having a job, but chose to stick it out until I found something that makes me wake up before my alarm every morning, one that makes me love Mondays. It is that passion that has translated a Facebook page into a book, live talks and connections with millions each week.

I’m often asked, ‘How do you do it?’ I have only one answer: a smile and a conversation can go a long way if we only open our hearts. And that’s what it’s all about in the end—opening our hearts a little more, sharing a little more and caring a little more.

Humans of Bombay: The Book is available for purchase here.

Photos: Humans of Bombay

Karishma Mehta
Karishma Mehta (@HumansOfBombay)

At 24, Karishma Mehta is the author of Humans of Bombay: The Book, has been featured in Forbes Asia, conducted a panel session for the UN Young Changemakers Conclave and given multiple TEDx Talks across India. She has been on the television show Leaders of Tomorrow and looks forward to expanding Humans of Bombay into a 360-degree media company, one that strikes the perfect balance between profit and philanthropy.

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