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Verve People
January 11, 2018

Karishma Mehta On How Humans Of Bombay Captures The Invincible Spirit Of The City

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

The founder spills the beans on why storytelling is the love of her life and how people continue to surprise her every day

I have to admit that my phone contains multiple entries of how I would narrate the story of my life in great detail, all so that I wouldn’t be left fumbling for words if Karishma Mehta approached me someday. That’s the power of storytelling, one that the 25-year-old founder of Humans of Bombay seems to have mastered with her project Humans of Bombay that is inspired by its counterpart in New York. What strikes you first, if you follow the Instagram account, is that every soul in the city has a story tell, whether rich or poor, young or old. You will find your heart levitating between buoyancy and heaviness as you scroll down the page, coming across all kinds of stories – some that plaster a big grin on your face, others that elicit a quick prayer for having a privileged life. We spoke to the enterprising woman ahead of her session at L’affaire Vikhroli, an event that brings together the best of fashion, travel, photography and books, where she will be conducting a workshop on how to capture the essence of a subject through street photography.

How has Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York shaped your own philosophy?
What I loved about Humans of New York when I first came across the page was how Brandon portrayed people’s stories in a very raw and real manner. Anyone who has followed the project since its inception can vouch for the fact that he’s maintained the honest, unfiltered quality of his narratives and it has really taken him places.

“I was always a bright student and enjoyed studying — while others were cooking up excuses to bunk school, I was looking forward to the homework and learning more. My parent’s invested all their savings in my education and my whole family believed that I had it in me to get a degree, break the cycle of dropping out and make it out of poverty. But 1 year into college, we suddenly lost our parents to an accident. All of us a sudden, at 18 I went from being a boy with dreams, to the man of the house, responsible for my two younger siblings. I didn’t want to drop out, but what choice did I have? I dropped out and began to work — at first I earned just about enough to feed us, but I started working over time and took on part time work to save more and all our lives became happier and better as we were able to afford more. And I’ve saved the best news for last — with all my savings I’m also able to afford my sister’s wedding. I’m 24 myself, but after my parents passed away, I began to look at her more like my daughter — every minute of hard work has been worth it because she’s so happy…we just bought her wedding outfit together. I’m going to give her away at the wedding too, and my heart is overflowing with emotions. I finally understand why sacrifice for your loved ones doesn’t bring you sadness — it gives you unparalleled happiness. All their dreams are my dreams now, and I know I couldn’t get a degree, but I hope my parents are proud of me wherever they are.”

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Have people ever been reluctant about sharing their story when you’ve approached them?
Many times. And I don’t blame them. If I were accosted by a complete stranger in the middle of the street and asked to share my deepest secrets, I would be bewildered too. That being said, it has gotten easier with time since more people now know about Humans of Bombay. That has worked in our favour and it’s become much easier to extract stories out of people.

If the camera was reversed, how would the story of Karishma Mehta read?
The lens hasn’t been trained on me for a reason; I hate being in front of the camera. It makes me uncomfortable and the awkwardness is evident in the result. I enjoy being behind the scenes, listening to people talk nostalgically and helping them tell their tales. I’m also afraid that an account of my own life will sound very drab in comparison to the brave chronicles that other people have opened up to me about.

At Kranti, I had therapy every week and learned about art, dance, and other forms of therapy. After I learned all these things, I started volunteering to help other kids. My favourite activity is volunteering at Tata Memorial Hospital, where I bring art activities for children who are waiting for cancer treatment. Together we do art projects that help the kids to express their fears, their problems and their hopes. For the last two years, I traveled all of India, learning theatre in West Bengal, attending photography class in Himachal, volunteering with NGOs in Gujarat, and working with Dalit communities in Delhi. My experiences convinced me that I wanted to be an art therapist and spend my life helping others who found it difficult to express. I applied to New York University and got in with a big scholarship— my entire tuition is covered! For me, this was the biggest validation — that I could get into a college of my dreams, study what I love and make a difference all while the police is still running after me to drag me back to the hostel I ran away from. But I’m finally stopping to run. I’m finally finding peace and stillness within me and the hope of a better tomorrow… the hope of a second chance to live a different life and to finally just…be.” (2/2) . . . . Ashwini has managed to get a scholarship at New York University which covers her entire tuition but not her room, boarding and day to day expenses. Together, we can help her get a second chance by contributing to her college fund. Please consider donating – link in bio 🙂

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Can you recount one of your favourite stories?
That’s a tough one because I’ve written every story that’s gone on the page. Each story is very close to my heart but there have been a few that have kept me up at night, wondering how they survived with what life threw at them. One such incident was when I encountered a young girl who had been orphaned after her mother, a sex worker, passed away. She raised herself on the streets, subsequently joining an organisation called Kranti and got into NYU on a full scholarship for arts. We raised approximately 17,000 USD for her boarding within 24 hours. It fills me with warmth to think that she was able to receive aid through me.

Has there been a story that has gone viral beyond your expectation?
Our posts tend to go viral quite often so we must be doing something right. You would imagine that stories of hardship would be the only ones getting all the attention but people are just as invested in happy memories. I remember speaking to a young Sardar kid who broke into a smile in the middle of the interview. When I asked him why he was grinning, he simply said, “I just thought of butter chicken.” The post was simple, short and sweet and received plenty of love from followers.

How has the format of your storytelling changed since you first started out?
We have increased the length of our narratives although we still like to keep it as crisp as possible since people have a low attention span while reading online. I’ve diversified into the video format recently, which has fared phenomenally. In addition to that, previously unpublished stories were compiled into a coffee table book that people really liked. I didn’t expect such a positive response but I’ve come to realise that people are open to buying things that put a smile on their face. We are surrounded by so much negativity in this day and age that people just grab at anything that ignites a spark of hope.

What do you do when you are not out gathering stories?
Since I have a double major in Business and Economics, it was quite natural that I head business development at Humans of Bombay. I handle all collaborations, chalk out monetisation plans and look for ways to rejig our business model. We are also looking to expand the team so we can give our audience more of what they want to see.

” I was feeling completely lost, when I suddenly remembered that an NGO called Purnata often came to our home in Sonapur and asked us to call them if we ever needed their help. I borrowed someones from phone at the station and called them. I said, ‘Didi, this is Nutan — I have nowhere to go, can you help me?’ and someone came to pick me up. My life has changed completely in these last 2 months — from being submissive and dependent, I’ve learnt to trust myself and become independent. Thankfully, Purnata is taking care of my children’s day to day and education expenses, but I intend on making money and doing that myself in the near future. I’m learning how to be a tailor and hopefully someday a designer, where I can hire more women like me from the red light area and give them a choice. This is my answer to all those who tried to break my spirit and abuse my children. As a mother, I’ll fight to no end to protect my children and make sure that they have a safe and secure future — never again will we be submissive.” — Purnata helps rehabilitate women like Nutan and takes care of their children’s expenses. With a little bit of help from you, they can rescue more women and help save them from the clutches of flesh trade… there’s still hope. Please consider donating here: Link in bio!

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You have recently started using your page for crowdfunding. How does that work?
Telling stories is at the heart of what we do so people talk to us about their lives and we’re just mediators who present their accounts. That it strikes a chord with those who have the power to donate and change lives is my privilege. It’s a huge responsibility and something that I definitely want to increase in the coming years. 

What’s next in the pipeline for Humans of Bombay?
Big things, actually. We are looking to expand our team like I mentioned earlier. We are also working towards making an impact in the development sector. We want to roll out more videos and there’s another book in the making — I’m very excited.

What should those registering for your session at L’affaire Vikhroli expect to learn?
I believe that the power of real photography is greatly underplayed. You may think it’s all about having a fancy DSLR but photography is more about capturing the soul of your subjects. You can take great photographs with your phone if you make certain adjustments and use the tools available to you correctly. It’s more about technique than equipment. 

Are you personally looking forward to attending any of the sessions at L’affaire Vikhroli?
I think people look most beautiful when they laugh so Abish Mathew’s standup session is something you’ll definitely find me at.

Karishma’s photography workshop will take place on January 13, 2017 from 4 p.m. to 4.40 p.m. at Godrej One, Vikhroli. You can register for the session on L’affaire Vikhroli Season 2’s Facebook page.

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