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!
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.
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!
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