The nicest thing about living in a city as colourful and ever-changing as Bombay is the access to astonishing stories at every corner, should you choose to go looking. A photographer called Brandon Stanton understood this very well, in a city very much like ours (except that it functions better), and created a blog called Humans of New York in 2010.
It prompted a flurry of copycat blogs around the world, and Bombay now has one too. What makes it so popular is how it reveals personal histories that are no less compelling or eye-opening than the biopics of famous historical figures that routinely play on big screens the world over.
Humans of Bombay: People help each other as they make their way out of the flooded streets during the 26/7 deluge. File pic/Rane Ashish
Bombay is full of all kinds of stories waiting to be discovered, populated as it is by people who are diamonds in the rough, each of them holding an anecdote or life lesson close to their hearts that is far more interesting than the latest Facebook update from a friend you haven't bothered to meet in real life for years.
I remember a bus conductor, for instance, who I once gave a lift to at 1 am after he had just completed his shift. He wanted to be an engineer, and told me he slept for four hours a day so he could have enough time to study before getting back to work. I remember a taxi driver who told me about his sons, both successful entrepreneurs, who wanted him to stay home and relax. He couldn't because meeting new people every day was an addiction. I remember a rickshaw driver who told me about a makeshift religious structure on SV Road, Goregaon, where one could purchase drugs from the resident holy man if one knew how many times to ring the bell.
On a crowded local train one morning, a fellow passenger made an entire compartment laugh out loud while describing an incident that took place soon after the horrific train bombings of July 2006. Apparently, days after the incident, he was in a crowded compartment when a man standing near one of the exits pointed to a suitcase on the luggage rack and asked who it belonged to. Without waiting more than 30 seconds for a reply, he panicked, picked up the suitcase and threw it out of the moving train. The minute that happened, the owner of the suitcase, who had been dozing in a corner, woke up and threw a fit. The trigger-happy man at the exit was forced to get off at the next station and walk back in the dark along with the owner, hoping to find the suitcase. No one knows if they ever did.
Bombay has a knack of surprising you with random acts of kindness too. In 2005, when the city went under, buses were submerged, cars floated away, Linking Road was full of abandoned vehicles and only the brave, the drunk or the desperate left the safety of their offices to try and get home. I happened to be one of those desperate folk stuck in a vehicle somewhere between Mahim and Andheri, and all I remember is food. There were people on both sides of the street, rushing to each vehicle with offerings of home-cooked snacks. There were steaming idlis, dal and roti, poha and upma and, every 100 metres or so, groups of people doling out hot cups of tea. It has been 11 years since that commute, and I may never forget it for as long as I live.
Experts believe that culture, connectedness and diversity are some of the things that help make a city great. We don't have access to much culture here, thanks to short-sighted civic officials and poorly planned hubs. Connectedness is an alien concept too, which is why millions of us struggle to get to work every morning. As for diversity, Bombay isn't what it used to be. We now have ghettos marked by religion and food habits. And so, the only real thing that makes our city great is the people who inhabit it. By that parameter, we all have some of the most interesting neighbours in the country.
The next time you find yourself at a crowded railway station or in the backseat of a taxi, waiting for a bus or in line at the BMC office, I suggest you turn to the person beside you and say hello. You may be given a life-changing story for free. And which true Bombayite would turn down a bargain like that?
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org