The idea in a line
A podcast assembling the history of Mumbai through the stories of its taxi drivers.
Kabi came to Mumbai in 1993, from Los Angeles via Ujjain. In the United States, she had worked as a taxi driver; here, she began working on various sorts of conceptual art.
“I was trying to document the changes to the Bombay skyline; the disappearances of the mills and their gates,” she remembers. “After some months, it became too overwhelming.”
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She was also visually documenting taxis; the mottos printed in their windscreens, the radium designs, the mud flaps and the artfully-done interiors. “One of my original ideas was to make textiles, with images from the backs of taxis printed on to khadi,” she says. “But I have never been able to put them together. I never like what I try.”
“I listen to podcasts. I love radio. I was having interesting conversations with the taxi drivers. I am an ex-taxi driver. One day, I was walking somewhere and my synapses made the connection,” she says. “Walking is good for synapses.”
So is driving, going by Kabi’s “Meter Down” podcasts, which have been running since July 2007.
“The first taxi driver I recorded was Shankar Jaiswal,” she remembers. “I really had no idea what I was doing. I explained to him that I wanted to record our conversation because I wanted to put it on the internet for people to hear about Bombay taxi drivers. It’s pretty much what I say now also, before I get in the taxi.”
Her friend Kannu is a sort of collaborator who listens to the podcast to identify anything he might find boring. “He is a Maharaj (cook) and also a migrant to Bombay, so I like his point of view,” says Kabi.
Edits take about a week, with opening music, intro and outtro (“I hate that part the most, because I don’t like my voice.”), and a host of ambient sounds—the ‘ding!’ of the meter, traffic, the slamming door of the taxi and a honking horn.
She also writes and designs long, elaborate blog posts for each podcast, with photos and her own reflections on the interview.
“The last thing I do is put give some visuals (with still photos) to the audio and cut to a DVD,” she says. “I give this, a copy of the podcast audio, the original raw audio, and prints of the photos to the driver. It’s his words, his story, so he should also have a copy.”
Her interview with Shankar Jaiswal never went up; neither did her second attempt at interviewing a cabbie. “He didn’t refuse,” she says. “But when I asked him questions he shook his head, or gave monosyllabic answers. It was pretty clear he didn’t want to do it, so I turned off the recorder.”
But she persisted, and her third interview became Meter Down’s first podcast, with Hari Lal Yadav. She has done a total of 27 podcasts since then and has had, she says, just “two or three refusals—one was at night, when it was raining hard. The driver looked at me and said, ‘you want me to drive safely or you want me to talk?’”
From the beginning, she says, people have been asking her what she plans to do with Meter Down. “I don’t have any ideas,” Kabi says. “I am happy to keep collecting histories of Bombay taxi drivers, at the beginning of the 21st century, in this rapidly changing city.”
Starting capital: Just the price of a small digital recorder and a better bandwidth plan from the ISP.
How did they raise the money: Self-financed.