One of the more poignant posts on the Humans of Bombay Facebook page is about a young girl. Like hundreds of others who spill into Mumbai, she too nurtured the dream of becoming an actress. But that’s not what brought her to the city. After being diagnosed with blood cancer at the age of 14, she came to the city to be treated. In the post she says, “I know everyone thinks cancer is a bad thing, which it is, but I think that God has great plans for me. I’ve always wanted to be an actress, so maybe this is his way of bringing me closer to my dream.”
This post went viral and almost overnight was shared by hundreds of people. A crowd-funding link was set up to fund her bone marrow operation. In the first 30 minutes, a lakh was raised. Over the next few days, Rs 10.31 lakh was donated by strangers who wanted her to be able to ‘give her board exams and dance without feeling weak.’
While the popularity of the blog, Humans of Bombay, founded and managed full time by 24-year-old Karishma Mehta in Janurary 2014 remains uncontested, it is such stories that set it apart. After more than two years of collecting stories from every corner of Mumbai, Mehta is now ready to turn the project into a book.
Mehta says, “The idea for a book was always there. Not only had many readers suggested such a compilation, but I thought these stories merit print publication. We’ve amassed a tremendous collection of stories. I also feel people now understand this project. They can now read a post and think ‘This is just like my story’. The book is a chance for people to hold and read these brief memoirs.”
The self-published book, Humans of Bombay , will carry 300 posts, some already seen and others Mehta has never published before.
It’s a mixed bag of stories, not unlike the city she covers. There will be stories about women, patriotism, friendship, travel, turning old in the city and more, all carefully shortlisted to best emulate the spirit of the city. “On one page you’ll find a moving story about how a woman got over her divorce and on the next page a simple post about children playing in the sun.” Mumbai’s icons — the ubiquitous vada pav, the majestic Asiatic library, local trains and the Ganpati celebrations — will also find themselves amid the pages of the book. “Holding the book will be like owning a slice of the city,” says Mehta.
The idea to start a photo blog about Mumbai came from the uber-popular Humans of New York Facebook page by photographer Brandon Stanton, which ushered in a new era for street photography. Since Humans of Bombay’s inception, the blog has generated approximately 5.7 lakh followers worldwide. Mehta posts every day and has almost 870 stories on the blog, none of which name the people featured. Just like Humans of New York, the blog started off on Facebook, but now Mehta has shifted it its own home, humansofbombay.in.
We talk about her blog’s evolution and Mehta meets the question with a fierce sense of pride. “We began by trying to capture the quirk of the city and in the process have explored phenomenal stories of Mumbai’s people,” she says.
Her posts often hit the spot, going viral. For instance, it was on the Humans of Bombay page that celebrity hair stylist Sapna Bhavnani opened up about her gang-rape. Around 88,000 people came out in support of the post and it was shared almost 9,000 times. The influence of the blog was felt when news media ran the story and gave other women the strength to share their own stories of abuse. Another story that captured hundreds of hearts was about a single mother who believed she had married the man of her dreams, but instead faced an abusive marriage and a terrifying escape from her husband. “Please, don’t rush into marriage because so often what people appear to be and who they are, is entirely different,” the lady urges young women. In another post, a man spoke about how he was repeatedly abused by his uncle since he was seven years old and brought to light the lack of a law dealing with child sexual abuse of boys in the country.
The blog made it possible to talk about taboo subjects, and has also allowed people to reach out to one another. For instance, posts about alcoholism or depression are met with support and helpline numbers to combat the illness.
Not all the posts are grave. “The beauty of the city is the spirit of the people. In any condition and environment, they manage to make the best of the situation. The readers love such stories,” Mehta says.
Browse through the website and you might find an older gentleman reading a paper who steps out in the evening to pass the time, only because his house is empty without his wife; or a smiling widower who says he can’t wait to go home because his daughter-in-law was making his favourite aloo bhindi today. or a shoe-polisher at the station who says, ‘A regular customer of mine just came here, told me it’s his birthday and gave me some cake to take home for my kids; I can’t wait to the smile on their faces when they see it’; or a lady relaxing on a bench in park because her husband asked her to lose weight by taking a walk in the park, but instead, “Basically instead of sitting at home, I'm sitting here and getting some fresh air; it’s nice.”
Future plans We ask Mehta about her plans for Humans of Bombay. “We’re going to do more bold and brazen work. We want to be storytellers who will not shy away from telling your story. If you have a story that is important, we want to help you tell it. Apart from that, I want to delve into live events and videos. I also want to venture into including these stories into newspaper columns,” says Mehta.
“The idea is to create the most honest account of Bombay. The book is the first step in that direction,” she says.
See humansofbombay.in to order a copy of the book; available for Rs 1,400 for a pre-order copy and Rs 1,600
The writer is a freelance journalist