Dabba Wallahs, Mumbai

You don’t have to look at the Churchgate Station clock in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) to know it’s exactly 11:30 a.m. That’s the time the train pulls in and a crush of men carrying metal cylinders, balanced on slats on heir heads, come rushing off. Go to Victoria Terminus and Mahalakshimi Station and the activity is identical. The dabbah wallahs have arrived. Bombay’s transit system has a lunch time rush hour but it’s the food that’s commuting.

In a city where every minute counts, Mumbai’s dabbah wallahs are hot food delivery men. Dressed in traditional white dhoti (sarongs) or lenga (pajama-type pants) and shirts and sandals and wearing distinctive Gandhi-style caps, the dabba wallahs have been a familiar sign in Mumbai for over 100 years. This “lunch-box brigade” as early as 1885 had already formed the Bombay Tiffin Box Suppliers Association. And in the past century of running this business, there has never been a strike and the men do not belong to a union.

As the dabba wallahs rush from the train to the sidewalk, they deposit their loads brusquely pushing aside pedestrians who happen to get in their way. The food must be delivered and it has to be hot. The clinking noise created by these men as they stack the lunch containers – or tiffins – on carts or on poles over their shoulders, adds to the already frenetic street activity. But there is a method to the delivery each day for the 150,000 hot, homemade lunches.

Junk food isn’t on the menu of the Mumbai executive who prefers home made meals, making the dabba wallah indispensable. Here’s how it works. By 9:30 a.m., the dabba wallah is at the designated house ready to collect the food-filled tiffins. Inside, the four-tiered container usually is hot rice, curry, vegetables and pickles. The crucial component of this chain is that the dabbah wallahs must reach the railway station of the outlying suburbs on time to meet the next link in this edible relay race. It’s here that the tiffins are separated and placed on trains going to specific districts of Mumbai. If anyone upsets this system, the entire routine may collapse, so timing is a major concern.

The tiffins can pass through as many as eight pairs of hands before landing on the desk of the executives, so it’s of major importance that the food containers are put on the trains on time to off-load in the city at precisely 11:30 a.m.

I knelt down to touch one as it was being unloaded and sure enough it had retained the heat. Some of the housekeepers had even gone to the trouble of fitting the tiffins into cloths bags for extra warmth, although with the temperatures in Mumbai never varies much from 29c to 32c. There’s little chance that the food will get too cold.

Here on the streets, each dabbah wallah is met by a colleague whoagain, sorts the cylinders, this time into districts and office buildings. None of the men could take time to speak with me. Every minute counts, my guide mentioned.

The drop-off information like name and address is listed on the lid and comes in the form of various color-coding. As most of these men are illiterate, they have formulated their own system which, seems indefinably efficient, as mistakes are rare.

Delivery is never much later than 12:30 p.m. and by 2:30 p.m. the routine is reversed as the dabbah wallahs return to pick up the empty tiffins. By 3 p.m. there isn’t a white uniformed man in sight.