Textual Snapshots: Collaging the Journey of the dabbawallas1

Gita Chadha

Origins and Transformations ñ I2

ëThe dabbawalla3 gets his name from the dabba, the aluminium containers fitted one above the other, held in place by a wire grip and lowered into an outer tin case, which serves the double purpose of keeping the food warm and preventing it from splashing out during the dabbawallaís rushed and jostling journey.í (Karkaria)

ëIf the railways are the lifeline of the middle-class working Mumbaiites, then dabbawallas are the soul of these Mumbaikers4.í (Contractor)

ëMost of Bombayís dabbawalla community5 comes from Pune, some four train hours away from Bombay. At the turn of the century, some enterprising villagers from here went to Bombay in search of better livelihoods. They discovered that a hardy but illiterate man could be nothing but a coolie of sorts. They carried any kind of load, and some specialised in lunch-boxes. It was only natural that the next man to leave the village would come and stay with his relative in the city, and as is natural his kinsman would induct him into his own profession. Thus gradually the business became the monopoly of families from this region.í (Karkaria)

ëMr. Sapan More, President of the Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, Mumbai, says, `Sir, we are the descendants of the great Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of the Maratha empire6. We belong to Mavla. Our ancestors used to climb up the fort hills of 500 or 600 feet height in a single breath on a single command from the Chhatrapati during the warfare of his times.í (Chhaya)

ëThese disciplined descendants of Shivajiís soldiers take one week leave in a year to go with family to Jejuri for a religious ëhawaní7. They have also formed a co-operative welfare trust with a monthly contribution of only Rs. 10/- and from this accrued fund, they have created ëdharmashalasí8 at the pilgrimage places giving very good facilities to the pilgrims at a very nominal rate9.í (Chhaya)

ëThe history of tiffin box carriers runs parallel to the history of Mumbaiís development. Saddled with growing population in the late nineteenth century, new settlements ñ further from the original one in the old Fort complex, started cropping up in Mumbai. As residential colonies kept moving further from Fort, a lot of Parsis, Christians and Europeans10 started finding it difficult to go home for their lunch in afternoons. Carrying lunch boxes while leaving home in the morning was not exactly fashionable then. Besides, nobody preferred a cold meal. In 1890, a Parsi banker working in a Ballard Pier branch employed a young man, who had come down from Poona district, to fetch his lunch every afternoon. Business picked up through referrals and soon our pioneer tiffin-carrying entrepreneur had to call for more helping hands from his village.í (Tokal)

ë ëBut, sir, we are victims of the times. Today we the descendants of such great warriors run around with the load of 25-30 tiffins on our heads. Our elders used to carry swords in the name of Shivaji. Today we carry food for others on our heads with perspiration running down our bodies to earn food for our families.í í (Chhaya)

ëThe charge for this extraordinary service is just Rs. 150/- per month, enough for the tiffinwallas, who are mostly self-employed to make a good living. After paying Rs. 60 per crate and Rs. 120 per man per month to the Western Railway for transport, the average tiffinwallas clear about Rs. 3,250/-. Of that sum, Rs. 10/- goes to the Tiffinmenís Association. After minimal expenses, the rest of the Rs. 50,000/- a month that the Association collects goes to a charitable trust that feeds the poor. Superb service and charity too. Can anyone ask for more!í (Nukkad)

ëThe dabbawallaís hardships are not confined to their jobs. In the cityís impossible housing problem, most of them are forced to leave their families behind in the village and see them twice or thrice a year. They live in cramped, slum ghettoes. They, who go through so much to deliver hot meals to hundreds, have time only for a hurried chapatti and a few morsels of vegetable wrapped in a newspaper and brought from home. Like their clients they cannot or will not eat in restaurants.í (Karkaria)

ëK.G. Balekar who has been delivering lunches since 1931 says, ` I have slogged like a donkey all my life, but I have given my son an education. I wanted him to be able to wear a clean shirt every day and sit in a nice air-conditioned office. He learned shorthand-typing and a officer, whose dabba I have been carrying, gave him a job.í (Karkaria)

ëAsked if he worries about the future of dabbawallas, at a time when India is opening up to Western companies and trends, union officer Subash Talekar smiles. Trends come, trends go, he says but the bottom line is, ëpeople still want home-cooked foodí. 11í (Baldauf)

Origins and Transformations ñ II12

ëWhat most symbolises Bombay? Not the historic Gateway of India immortalized on a million postcards or even the Gothic, gargoyled Victoria Terminus (now known as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). For me, Bombay is the dabbawalla, the daughty little man in distinctive white Gandhi-cap, who delivers thousands of hungry lunches to office-goers every afternoon.í (Karkaria)

ëIt was this dual aspect of Bombay which was explored in Boseís exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery in 199513. The show consisted, once again, of museumised objects. This time, he used colourful wooden boxes with a glass-covered cubical cavity in the centre. Among the items inside these cavities were guttered candles, multi-tiered tiffin boxes of the sort delivered by Bombayís famed dabbawallas, and a pair of workmanís gloves. It was as if the ëframeí, that is the bright geometric boxes containing the exhibits, belonged to one time zone, and the rather battered exhibits to another. The irony was, of course, that both were products of contemporary Bombay. It was the present, rather than the past, that was being museumised. But, if there were two or more Bombays within the same urban space, was there not a moral issue to be addressed here?í (Shahane)

ëThe meals are picked up from commutersí homes in suburbs around Central Mumbai long after the commuters have left for work, delivered to them on time, then picked up and delivered home before the commuters return. Each tiffin carrier has, painted on its top, a number of symbols which identify where the carrier was picked up, the originating and destination stations and the address to which it is to be delivered. After the tiffin carriers are picked up, they are taken to the nearest railway station, where they are sorted according to the destination station. Between 10:15 am and 10:45 am, they are loaded in crates onto the baggage cars of trains. At the destination station they are unloaded by other tiffinwallas and re-sorted, this time according to street-address and floor. The 100-kilogram crates of carriers, carried on tiffinwallasí heads, hand-wagons and cycles are delivered by 12:30 pm, picked up at 1:30 pm and returned where they came from.í (Nukkad)

ëTheir customers are middle-class citizens14, who for reasons of economy, hygiene, caste and dietary restrictions ñ or simply because they prefer wholesome foods from their own kitchens ñ rely on the dabbawallas to deliver a home-cooked midday meal.í (Deefholts)

ëHome-food so lovingly cooked by the mother, sister or bhabhi at home with all care and love for the taste, hygiene and quality that the Roti-earner15 of the family has a right and privilege to savour to his full nourishment, reaches thousands of mill-workers, office-goers and executives on their tables in their work-place miles away in the most punctual and error-proof system.í (Chhaya)

ë ëIíve worked here for the last 40 years, and it happens very rarely that my dabba gets lost,í says Solani, manager of a clothing store in central Bombay. ëIt is very bad for your health and very expensive to eat outside every day. With the dabba, the food becomes cold, but even then it is better.í í (Baldauf)

ëYet times are changing. Mumbaiís trendy young executives lead affluent life-styles which have much in common with their counterparts in the West. ëMy wife holds down a full-time job,í says Minu Bharucha, a financial consultant. ëThere is no way sheíd be able to cook lunch four our family. I usually eat out, either with my colleagues or business associates.í í 16 (Deefholts)

ëIn a dabbawallaís tray, a Brahminís rice jostles along with a low-caste chapatti; a Hinduís vegetable curry with a Muslimís mutton korma ñ thus, in a way, the dabba system dissolves the barriers of caste, class and community which havenít been entirely demolished from Indian society17.í (Karkaria)

ëWith the sheer size of the operation and the nerve-racking rush, surely, the dabbas get mixed up. In a country with rigid food taboos, this could be disastrous. Krishnan, a staunch vegetarian South Indian Brahmin, recalls how he opened his dabba one day hoping to see fluffy, snow white rice and instead found half a fried fish staring back at him. ëI couldnít look at food for a week without that wretched fish head swimming up before my eyesí, he remembers with a shudder. But such instances are rare.í (Karkaria)

Origins and Transformations ñ III18

ëA tourist attraction by themselves any description of Mumbai city remains truly incomplete without the inclusion of this unique tribe which is one of its kind in the whole world. Like the colourful roadside hawkers the vitality and vigour of the dabbawallas too make the city throb with life and rhythm.í (Indiaprofile.com)

ëStickers of Colgate, Dabur, Kaun Banega Crorepati are shining on the tiffin boxes that the dabbawallas are delivering. The idea is simple. Every Mumbaikar sees the dabbawalla in action. The 5,000-strong army blends into the cityís landscape with the dabbas ñ the best possible media for corporates to reach out to the whole of Mumbai. What could be a better advertising option that involves so little money?í (Economic Times)

ëIt was an unusual story by Forbes Global. A marked departure from its sought-after macro-economic reviews and corporate analyses. The US-based business magazine recently zeroed in on Mumbaiís dabbawalla. The lunch logisticians who deliver 1.5 lakh (how much is that in kilogramm?) lunch boxes to hungy office-goers every day have in the past found mention in the Indian press, but the Forbes story was the first time an international organisation had analysed them scientifically and rated them as if they comprised a corporate body. And the conclusions were more than flattering ñ the dabbawallas scored a 6-Sigma performance rating19.í (Unnithan)

ëIn many ways digital communications and the Internet are highly synonymous to the lunch-time traffic of the Mumbaian dabba lunch system. The Internet is a network that relies on a concept called packet switching. Packet switches take voice or data streams and break them down into smaller segments, called packets. These packets are then ferried, independently from the other packets and possibly taking different routes, across the country or the world, in bursts, and are then reassembled at their destination. Like a specific lunch in Mumbai, each packet may have to go through several packet switches (dabbawalla hand offs) before reaching its final destination.í (Network Planet)

ë ëWe not only launch our own satellites today but those of our foreign customers too, including Germany and Korea. All this is done for a budget that is just less than 7 per cent of a single company in the US. Shouldnít we be proud of this featí asked Dr. Mashelkar20. Citing another example to illustrate that illiteracy doesnít mean that their innate potential is nil, he asked: ëWhat do global giants like General Electric and Motorola have in common with a humble tiffin delivery network comprising 3,500 dabbawallas, who deliver 1.5 lakh lunch boxes in Mumbai each day? The dabbawallas have the six-sigma rating or one error in one million transactions. They are largely illiterate but their business models have become a classroom study in some management institutes21. They necessarily have to innovate to survive and to succeed,í he explained22.í (Hindu)

ëWe deliver freshly prepared Indian vegetarian meals to office workers in Manhattan. To see if you are in our delivery area, use the link below. For absolute freshness and to prevent over production, only limited quantities are prepared each morning. Same day orders should be placed before 11 am to ensure inclusion23.í (Dabbawala.com)

ëGibreel, also losing his already tenuous grasp on sanity, imagines himself as Godís postman, the Archangel Gabriel, who must deliver the word of God to His prophet on earth: Muhammad. Somehow his lines become confused and Satan interjects verses into Gibreelís head, leaving the latter in a state of consternation: Ñif the dabba had the wrong markings and so went to the incorrect recipient, was the dabbawalla to blame?" 24í (Rushdie).


1. The present piece contextualises the journey of the dabbawalla and the dabbawalla system on the global map. From Mavla to Mumbai to Manhattan, the dabbawalla seems to stop at several stations - as reality, as icon, as metaphor. Part subversive and part reflexive, the piece is written within the format of academic writing. It cites, quotes and intentionally footnotes itself alongwith other referentialities. It, therefore, does not flow in one style but juxtaposes many different styles of writing. It deliberately uses ëcut-and-pasteí in an obvious manner to subvert the academic style of writing and quotes from a variety of sources which include journalistic writings, management studies, academic articles and literary texts. The main text of the piece is a series of these quotations self-consciously arranged as a map while the footnotes contain the actual interpretation of the journey of the dabbawalla from the local to the national to the global. This piece has been written in tandem with Shilpa Guptaís installation at the exhibition ëíLearning from* Cities of the World, Phantasms of Civil Society, Informal Organisationíí. (Chadha)

2. Every group has its origin stories, its imagined genealogies. These surface now and again in the everyday life of the group. Glimpses of the origin stories of the dabbawallas as a community and snapshots of their transformation in Mumbai as migrants are presented in Origins and Transformations ñ I. (Chadha)

3. The thesaurus is an amateurís tool to provide a litany of synonyms to describe a mundane event and feel like a modern wordsmith. The listing of similar words is not the point; the goal is to use the absolutely correct word in the absolutely correct manner. Words such as "dÈtente," "memoir," "rapprochement," "dabbawalla" or "shit-nest" may be the absolute word to describe something worth describing. The timely use of the correct word is a treat for both the ears and the brain. (Mandan). Dabbawalla ñ the man with the dabba. The ëwith-nessí defines the walla. Often used as an occupational suffix to the personís name like in bhajiwalla (vegetable dealer) or kabadiwalla (scrap dealer), these terms conflate the personal identity with the occupational identity in modern, urban spaces. The ëwallaí also persists as surnames in some communities (like Lakdawalla or Mariwalla) where the traditional occupation may have disappeared but the name remains. Because ëwallaí has the connotation of ëdealerí or ëone who deals in a particular somethingí it also gets used in other interesting contexts like Shakespearewalla (for a person running a Theatre Company) or, the more recent, Siliconwalla (for the ubiquitous Indian yuppie in the Silicon Valley). (Chadha)

4. Mumbai i.e. Mumba-aai (the goddess, Mumba, as aai i.e mother in Marathi) was the pre-colonial name of Bombay that comes from the goddess Mumbadevi. The anglicised name Bombay has now been changed to Mumbai. (isnít mumbai a hindu-name? Do you think it would be good to mention this here?)

5. The dabbawallas have been described both as Mard Marathas (the masculine warrior caste in Maharashtra) and as Vithoba chi Fauz (the army of Lord Vithoba, an incarnation of Vishnu). Chief among the worshippers of Vithoba is the egalitarian cult of the Varkaris. The dabbawallas carry within their collective consciousness a history of the Varkari Sampradaya and the warrior ethos as descendants of Shivajiís soldiers. (Chadha) Varkari philosophy is often labeled mysticism because of its emphasis on the experience of revelation (anubhav). However, in their case, anubhav implies the experience of and reflection on the daily involvement in normal social life. Sants (what exactly is a Sant?) unite spirituality with daily life experience and open up possibilities for critical reflection on life that has, inherent in it, a transformative potential. (Lele)

6. Shivaji tried to fabricate a political nation out of the socio-cultural legitimacy derived from his consciousness fostered among the masses by the Varkari saints. He curbed the autonomy of the jagirdars (what is this?) at home and gave protection and stability to the daily life of his subjects. He recruited into his army peasants (kunbis) and artisans impoverished by the recent famines. Some of them rose to an elite maratha jagirdar status on acquiring power and wealth. Through aggressive campaigns into other territories, he provided sustenance to his armies and additional revenue for his treasury. By aggressively asserting his kshatriya (what is this?) status through genealogies provided by imported brahmins (what is this?), by becoming a titled protector of their rights and privileges, and by appointing a number of them to high positions within his administration, Shivaji re-instated maratha-brahmin dominance. At the same time, by defining and scrupulously obeying the cultural boundaries of a just and caring administration within his domain, he appropriated and thus blunted the Varkari critique of orthodoxy and oppression. (Lele)

7. The hawan is the ritual fire used in Hindu worship.

8. The dharmashala is the name for a community service hall provided for pilgrims and travellers.

9. The dabbawallas, as providers of these spaces and services, become minor patrons of spirituality in the rural context. This has been acknowledged by the award to the dabbawallas of the Shri Varkari Probhodhan Mahasamati Dindi (Palkhi) Sohala in March, 2001.

10. With its emphasis on a hot, home-cooked meal delivered at your doorstep the dabbawalla service started off as a marker of a privileged status of the client both at the home and at the work-place. In the beginning, it was a service meant for the anglicised elite of the society reflecting both the feudal and the patriarchal underpinnings. (Chadha)

11. The dabbawalla system has survived both the advent of the Udipi Restaurant ñ a cheap eating-out option and the closure of the textile mills in Mumbai which provided a major chunk of its clientele. (Chadha)

12. In Origins and Transformations ñ II, the focus is on the functioning of the dabbawalla system in the Mumbai cityscape and the segment of the Mumbai population it caters to. (Chadha)

13. Krishnamachari Bose, a Mumbai-based artist, has engaged with the life of the dabbawallas in his work. The dual aspect of Mumbai, that Shahane refers to here in writing about Bose, is the freedom that the vibrant city offers, on the one hand, to a young migrant like Bose and the suffocation that the migrant feels because of the overcrowding and lack of space in the city, on the other. It is interesting how Boseís experiences as a migrant mirrors the experiences of the dabbawallas whom he has worked on. (Chadha)

14. In its clientele, the dabbawallas have reached out to students living in hostels (again a privileged lot being nurtured by middle class parents), working women (whose ëmaidí at home cooks the lunch for the dabba ñ the use of the term working women in Mumbai is ironically restricted to office-goers and the like and fails to consider ëmaidsí as working women) and aged people (living away from the nuclear family but within the field of responsibility of the nuclear family).

15. While the dabbawalla service has changed from catering to the needs of the elite to those of the white- and blue-collared workers, it still contains within itself the feudal, patriarchal ideology of a hot, home-cooked meal served at the doorstep. Note how the image, strongly reinforced through popular cinema, of the rural woman taking a meal to the male bread-earner working in the fields. In the urban context, the dabbawalla becomes the mediator. (Chadha)

16. An interesting addition to the clientele of dabbawallas is a new set of health-conscious executives who are on health diets. One such centre uses the dabbawallas to send lunches to as many as 300 people on its diet regimen. (Chadha)

17. The dabba system dissolves these barriers only apparently. In practice, what it reinforces are specific class, caste and community food-habits that resist the homogenisation of a restaurant or a canteen. (Chadha)

18. Origins and Transformations ñ III, maps the iconisation of the dabbawallas and their networks, both in national and global spaces, through travel brochures, management studies and literary texts. (Chadha)

19. The Forbes article on the dabbawalla has generated international interest and added to the visibility of the dabbawallas. This article has been translated in the regional Marathi press and, as conversations with dabbawallas reveal, they have been read by a large number of dabbawallas themselves, adding to their self-esteem. This recognition from the West is perhaps deflecting their attention away from the threats posed by globalisation. This is, perhaps, also the explanation for the upbeat mood of people like Talekar of the Mumbai Tiffin Suppliers Association. (Chadha)

20. This is an excerpt from a speech by R.A. Mashelkar , Director-General, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, India at the 80th Convocation of the Delhi University. It reveals how the dabbawalla system is becoming an icon of national pride in certain circles.

21. Faculty member in the Department of Industrial Administration at the Carnegie Mellon University, Paul Goodman alongwith Denise Rousseau has made a film on the dabbawalla system that has become a tool at management schools.

22. The dabbawalla as an icon of national pride and achievement comes out most strikingly in the fact that the dabbawalla system was listed in India Today as being among the 55 things that make India proud. (India Today)

23. Dabbawalla.com is the website of an Indian lunch service in Manhattan. The website incorporates the six-sigma rating that the dabbawalla system has been accredited with alongwith the picture of a dabbawalla in Mumbai. While the picture lends authenticity to the Manhattan dabbawalla services, it is legitimized through the six-sigma rating by Forbes Global. Secondly, the simple meal of the middle/working class client of the dabbawalla get exoticised in the more elaborate menu of the Manhattan lunch service, inpsite of being a cheap $5.00 takeway. (Chadha)

24. This quote from Salman Rushdieís ëSatanic Versesí sees the dabbawallaís humble task of delivering the lunch-box as a metaphor for the Archangelís purpose of delivering the word of God. If the Satan of globalisation i.e. the McDonaldisation in this case does decide to interject verses into the Mumbai dabbawallaís head thereby affecting their 6-sigma rating, then will it be the transformative potential of the Varkaris that will come to their rescue? (Chadha)

1. Chadha, Gita: ëTextual Snapshots: Collaging the journey of the dabbawallasí Catalogue for the exhibition ëLearning from* Cities of the World, Phantasms of Civil Society, Informal Organisationí, Berlin 2003
2. Mandan, www.clydepark.com/mandan.htm (mandan is a city, right? Not the author, maybe this would become clear: unknown author: Mandan:
3. Karkaria, Bachi: Upper Crust Magazine: www.uppercrustindia.com/ 11crust/eleven/mumbai3.htm.
4. Contractor, Behram as quoted in Thokal
5. Lele, Jayant in the essay ëPolitical Appropriation of Bhakti: Hegemony and Dominance in Medieval Maharashtraí in ëHindutva: The Emergence of the Rightí Earthworm Books, 1995.
6. Chhaya, Shantanu www.mumbai-central.com/specials/tiffin.html
7. Tokal, Ajay Report on a study entitled Logistics and Customer Satisfaction of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association. Place and Date?
8. Nukkad www.mumbai-central.com/nukkad/archive.html
9. Baldauf, Scott Christian Science Monitor, July 2001.
10. Shahane, Girish: `Likenessí Essay on an exhibition of Krishnamachari Bose, May 2003.
11. Deefholts, Margaret www.travel-wise.com/europe/india/mumbai.html
12. Indiaprofile.com: www.indiaprofile.com/businessandindustry/dabbawallas.htm
13. Economic Times, Report published on 27th December 2001.
14. Unnithan, Sandeep Report in India Today published on 4th June 2001.
15. Network Planet www.sun.com/executives/digitaljourney/stories/ 26human/research.html
16. India Today: í55 Things that make India Proudí report published on 19th August 2002
17. Hindu, The Report published on 23rd February 2003.
18. Dabbawala.com: www.dabbawala.com
19. Rushdie, Salman: `Satanic Versesí Viking Press, 1989.