Bringing Human Spirit to the Fore

Bringing Human Spirit to the Fore

“I enjoy the photographs of my city, particularly the ones with a relatable story associated with it,” says Ramya Shankar, who follows one of the many Facebook pages that capture the spirit of humanity in Indian cities. “Some of the posts instantly strike a chord especially when you are away from home,” she adds. These pages, inspired by Brandon Stanton’s hugely popular Facebook page Humans of New York, strive to bring the spirit of its city’s people to the fore. What’s more, they boast of an enviable fan following.

There’s Humans of Bombay. There’s Humans of Bangalore. There’s Humans of Madras. And then, some more. The posts on these pages are usually portraits of people accompanied by a bite-sized story that offers a peek into their lives. “My page has featured people from all walks of life. It is not something that caters only to a particular audience,” says Karishma Mehta, who founded and runs the Humans of Bombay page.

By featuring people from different walks of life, these pages bring the spirit of the cities they represent to life. “The main idea is to bring out the quirkiness that the city of Chennai has to offer,” says Srinath Srinivasan, one of the five members of the team that manages the page Humans of Madras.

For Sreya Vittaldev, founder and administrator of Humans of Bangalore, the bullying that she had been subject to at school, with no one in particular to turn to and share her story with, cemented her belief that there had to be a platform for people to come out and speak. “I wanted to create a platform that enables people to come together, not judge one another and share their thoughts openly, a platform where society comes together to solve fears in the most positive manner,” she shares.

“I wanted to create a platform that enables people to come together, not judge one another and share their thoughts openly, a platform where society comes together to solve fears in the most positive manner.” – Sreya Vittaldev, Humans of Bangalore

More often than not, the stories come with a good dose of inspiration, which is one of the reasons why these pages continue to remain popular among their followers. “To be able to bind with the real details of somebody’s life story is what people find inspiring,” tells Karishma. According to her, a very “normal, mundane looking person” would have the most fascinating story to tell. That explains why the pages are full of stories of people who have braved the odds and emerged successful – the perfect testimony to the human spirit.

These are stories that leave the readers teary-eyed, joyful and give them the goosebumps. For instance, Humans of Madras shared a moving story of an ambitious mother and her experience of raising two autistic children as well as that of a young man who’s coming to terms with the fact that he has bipolar disorder and learning to deal with it.

Humans of Bombay recently featured a man from Jabalpur who dreamed of becoming an IT expert and landed in Mumbai, the city of dreams. The post tracks his extremely inspiring journey in which he eventually realised his dream. And then there are also those quirky, little tales, with gentle humour and oodles of inspiration, like the one that featured a 70-year-old woman with a wide, beautiful smile on her face and went viral globally, including being featured on Huffington Post:

I’m 70, working, happy and still unmarried.”
“Any particular reason?”
“No man has been special enough…yet.

“What drives me is breaking conformity,” says Sreya, “I want to showcase things that challenge the Indian society’s mindset. I like to feature people who are doing exactly that,” she opines. According to her, the idea that one has to behave in a certain manner in order to be socially acceptable, needs to be broken. It’s heartening to note the space these pages offer to life stories of homosexuals, the differently-abled and people from across all classes. “I think we have featured every kind of person that there is – sex workers, homosexuals, people who are against the city, who are with the city. We just let the stories be,” says Karishma, “The idea is to make everybody as normal and as human as possible.”

“I think we have featured every kind of person that there is. The idea is to make everybody as normal and as human as possible.” – Karishma Mehta, Humans of Bombay

Talking of diversity, Srinath reveals something interesting about Chennai, the city that’s generally perceived as conservative. “Talking to someone randomly would reveal something unusual that you wouldn’t expect to find in the city,” he shares, adding, “it’s just that people choose to not show out the diversity much, here. And, we love to bring that out.” Stories featured by his team include a man talking about his inspiration – a member of the LGBT community – and a participant in Chennai Pride Parade who puts out a clarion call for equality of all kinds.

So how do they choose who to feature on the page? “I feature people from the streets,” says Sreya, “I walk around and talk to people mainly to break the idea  ‘don’t talk to strangers’. It’s still a taboo in our society.” Karishma agrees. “I just walk out into the street and start talking. There’s no yardstick,” she says. But she’s also quick to point out that over time, it’s a gut instinct more than anything else. The Humans of Madras team picks people through their contacts while also featuring inspirational people from day-to-day life. “It could be anyone, from daily-wage workers to CEOs,” explains Srinath, adding that sometimes, they meet interesting people through the photo-walks they organise.

Karishma points out that while some people are comfortable facing the camera and opening up to her with intricate details of their lives, others aren’t. In such cases she tries to change them from being not-so-chatty to being chatty. “But, it doesn’t always work,” she says, “so I just try and then move on to the next.”

Sreya feels that the reaction is quite mixed. “Some of the best stories have required a lot of patience and time to allow the person to open up,” she shares, while admitting that she has been turned down lot of times before she found a good story. “People aren’t always thrilled to see their stories online, sometimes they change their minds and ask me to take them down. I completely respect that too,” she reveals.

“There is no gain without pain,” admits Srinath. According to him, initiating conversations and getting photographs is not an easy task. “We have to make them believe that we are not a media joke,” he says, “So we carry our mobile phones to show them our page on Facebook.”

Yet, in spite of the hesitation that prevails, the pages have been successful in capturing the spirit of the cities, one story at a time. “Bangalore is a city that teaches you the true form of finding your essence and to continue living it, a city that urges you to go on a journey of the self,” says Sreya. Karishma believes that the people of Mumbai are very different, which is what makes the page different and lends it the diversity as well. “The stories by themselves bring out the diversity, there’s absolutely no need to consciously try and do it,” she explains.

Srinath is quick to point out the resilient nature of the people of Chennai. Citing the recent floods in the city as an example, he says, “I think people here showed humanity was more important than their religion, caste and status in society. We can all be proud of how we defended ourselves and how we are coming back to life at a very fast pace.”

Interestingly, the pages are also evolving as a platform for aiding social causes. Says Sreya who organised a relief campaign in Bangalore during the Chennai floods, “Close to 500 kg of relief material were contributed in less than five hours of me posting a requirement, and all of these came through Humans of Bangalore.” Aiding social causes, Sreya believes, has helped her widen the vision for her page. In fact, she tied up with Teach for India in November 2015 to raise funds for a government school in Bangalore, through the page. Similarly, the Humans of Bombay page recently helped raise funds for a young girl’s bone marrow transplant.

For all the inspiration that the pages send out, managing them definitely has some challenges. Comment moderation is one such. Posting stories on Facebook opens it up to many opinions and comments, sometimes controversial. “We do get some harsh comments or have people fighting with one another in the comments section,” says Srinath. But the team ensures that the issue is settled or the hurtful comments are removed.

“Online trolls represent the ugly parts of society that we are all trying to fight off, and when they appear on my page, I am more than just thrilled to explain things to them,” stresses Sreya. Be mean, be tough and be fiercely protective of your stories, she insists. At the same time, when the criticism is constructive and valid, Sreya says she tries to blend her perspectives with theirs. The latest story about an HIV-affected sex worker on the Humans of Bangalore page is a case in point where Sreya and other commenters engaged with each other to help bust certain myths around HIV positive sex workers.

“People always talk. There are always conflicting opinions,” says Karishma who also agrees that she is open to healthy debate. “However, if it gets nasty or if people are being very unkind, or if they pass sexual comments, they are taken off the page,” she explains.

Yet, the people and the experiences, it appears, are probably worth the trouble. “I have met such wonderful people, who have done and said positive things. They may not be the biggest contributors – but positive, yes they sure were. And every act like that counts, but it is so underrated,” opines Sreya.

But what’s most beautiful about being someone who manages such pages is the way it has changed him or her as a person. “I have become really patient, I can listen to people for hours together now,” reveals Srinath, adding that he now loves people’s smiles and faces. Being a part of Humans of Madras, he says, has taught him that it is imperative to put your best effort into anything without any expectations.

“I have become really patient, I can listen to people for hours together now” – Srinath Srinivasan, Humans of Madras

“I have become more honest,” tells Sreya, “and the fear of saying what’s on my mind doesn’t exist anymore.”  She believes that she is able to love people more, enjoy their company more and appreciate intimate moments better, thanks to Humans of Bangalore.

Sreya, Srinath and Karishma all talk about how working on their page has taught them to not be judgmental about another person or circumstance ever.

Says Karishma: “I have understood that it’s great to appreciate another person’s opinion and it’s great to be different…”

“And it has made me fall more in love with the city I was born in,” she signs off.

With additional inputs from Vani Viswanathan

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