“Can we shoot elsewhere? I hate being watched by so many people,” says Karishma Mehta. We’re at Gateway of India, and about 20 people have surrounded us. The anxiety is surprising. One would assume Mehta, the woman behind Humans of Bombay — a Facebook page that chronicles the stories of Mumbaikars — would be comfortable around strangers.
“It’s not that I don’t like people. But this place makes me nervous. I almost got arrested here.”
In 2015, Mehta was shooting a video at Gateway, with a subject she intended to feature. “While talking, he kept looking over my shoulder. I turned back to see what the distraction was. About 150 people had gathered, holding up traffic,” recalls the 25-year-old. The police threatened to put Mehta behind bars. A smile, and the ability to speak Marathi, got her out. “People listen when you smile and talk to them. Being friendly takes you a long way,” she says. In her line of work, you should probably put that on a CV.
Mehta has been walking the streets of Mumbai documenting stories of random strangers since January, 2014. Her Facebook page now boasts of 5.8 lakh followers, and features nearly 1,000 stories that provide a glimpse into the struggles of common people. Mehta’s subjects have battled abusive marriages, drug habits, social exclusion. Through her efforts, she has given them a voice.
Now, she has collated the stories in a book. Eponymous with the Facebook page, it even features 70 to 80 additional stories that are not yet online.
An idea is born
The former Bombay Scottish (“Mahim, not Powai,” she clarifies) student describes her childhood as “driven by storytelling”. “I believe in the magic of the written word. I can read non-stop for hours,” she says.
Does she have favourites? “That’s a difficult one. I can’t choose,” she says. She does, however, talk about three books that changed her life. “The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi, and Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I have never felt more joy than while reading them,” she says.
It’s not surprising then that Mehta found herself inexplicably drawn to Humans of New York (HONY) — the Facebook page that started it all (now with over 17 million likes). It chronicles the lives of the residents of the Big Apple.
She discovered the page in 2013, while studying economics and business in Nottingham, UK. “I was enamoured by Brandon [Stanton, the founder of HONY]. His pictures were spectacular, and the stories, awe-inspiring.”
Intrigued, Mehta Googled ‘Humans of Mumbai’, hoping to find a similar campaign. She found none. And that is when an idea began to take shape.
"I grew up in India where a woman got married, settled down, and kept a house. I never thought I’d do anything different. I lived a very sheltered existence. I went to a British school, then a women’s college, and then I met my husband. I assumed that I’d be taken care of for the rest of my life. But shortly after we came to America, my husband slipped into a coma and lingered for another fifteen years. We had a small child at the time. I’d never worked before, except for a part-time job in the bookshop at the Met. I was a very quiet person. And suddenly I had to make all of the decisions. I had to get a full time job. It was empowering. I learned that I could be fearless, I could be angry, and I could fight. These were three things that I’d never had to do before. I was thinking recently, that if my husband had lived, he might not have liked who I’ve become."
Yet, there was no moment of epiphany. She simply woke up one Sunday in January, 2014, created a Facebook page, and designed a logo on Microsoft Word. She walked out onto the street armed with that all-persuasive smile and a Canon semi-professional camera.
The first person she approached said “no”. “I saw a young girl in a frilly pink dress in Dadar. I wanted to photograph her, but her parents refused, point blank,” Mehta says.
Two-and-a-half years and a thousand stories later, Mehta is still nervous before initiating a conversation with a stranger. “Rejection isn’t easy. But one needs to understand the point after which insistence becomes intrusion into somebody’s personal space,” she explains. So, a large part of her process involves waiting in the background, observing people.
We stand on a street adjacent to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Mehta trails off alone and spends a while just looking at people. Then, she walks up to a security guard and requests to speak with him. “What is your happiest memory?” she asks. It takes a few minutes, but soon, he’s talking about how he encourages his daughter to study. The tone is that of an easygoing conversation, like two friends catching up.
“I always start by asking about people’s happiest memories. They lower their guard. Besides, when they think of happier times, they smile. It makes for a good picture,” she says.
Yet, all of Mehta’s stories have an underlying theme of fighting adversities. Be it celebrity hairdresser Sapna Bhavnani’s story about her gang rape in Chicago, USA, that went viral with over 9,000 shares, or the simple story of this security guard. At the end of the day, they are also stories of hope.
In that she is different from HONY, where Stanton, at times, shares only a quirky one-liner from his subject. But since the basic concept was the same, she was criticised early on. “People commented on how we Indian’s ‘steal’ ideas from the West,” recalls Mehta. How does she deal with the flak? “I ignore it. I’m only here to share stories,” she says.
She’s also more of a documentarian of personal stories than a photographer. In a stark contrast to Stanton’s professional photography skills, Mehta is self-trained. She says she learnt how to handle a camera by watching YouTube tutorial videos. She still struggles, though, from time to time, preferring to work on the camera’s auto mode.
What’s remarkable, however, is Mehta’s knack for picking out anecdotes that are often lost in conversation. For her, the most powerful message from her interaction with the security guard was his comment on his wife. “He said he lost his wife five years ago, and he still misses her every day. That’s true love,” she says.
Great power, great responsibility
Mehta’s intention behind starting the page was never commercial; she only wanted share the stories of common Mumbaikars. “I wanted the people in the city to know more about the lives of their co-city dwellers (sic),” says Mehta.
But Mehta’s storytelling skills have actually changed people’s lives. She did a series of stories on the ambitions and hopes of the children of sex workers, and asked followers on Facebook to raise `5 lakh for Kranti, an NGO that works in this space. Mehta claims to have raised Rs 6.5 lakh in under 12 hours.
What about her own earnings? “I make nothing from the page. It’s a sentimental project, where I get to write powerful stories. The funds to manage logistics come from my freelance writing. For instance, I did a series of stories from Mumbai’s local trains for National Geographic’s magazine, and a few other publications,” she says.
The book will be her first source of income from the project. This is also a major milestone for Humans of Bombay. “This is the first step towards expanding the reach of the stories. I hope to release the book in multiple languages, so a larger audience can read it. Then, maybe I will start a video series, a podcast even,” she says.
By then, maybe even the cops will know who she is.
Humans of Bombay can be purchased on humansofbombay.in
Price: Rs 1,650
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