Meet the dabbawala

Meet the dabbawala

If you work in Mumbai, it's likely that you'll have your own lunch, maybe cooked by your mother or your wife, brought to your desk each day by one of a team of dabbawalas, or lunchbox carriers.  Though we've known about these ever since we've been coming to the city, this morning we decided to go and take a closer look at their work.  

So, first things first.  If you're lucky to have someone make lunch for you at home, then the local  dabbawala will collect it before 9am and put it on a train bound for the city.  He has a system; he'll put it in a specal part of the train with many other lunchboxes from different stations and around 11.30am each day, these lunchboxes will all arrive at Churchgate Station in central Mumbai and be collected by the dabbawalas here, for the next part of their journey.


So we made our way to Churchgate station this morning, in the hope of observing the goings on.  As always, each train that came in brought hundreds of commuters and we watched, patiently as the clock neared 11.30.


Sure enough, here they came, carrying large pallets of lunchboxes on their heads, weaving their way through the crowds and not wasting any time in reaching the next stage of the process.


Though the traditional metal tiffin tins were best carried on the pallets, many lunchboxes are now more modern, insulated bags and so some dabbawalas were carrying them without a pallet.  In the next ten or so minutes, a couple of dozen of these chaps had come through bearing their precious loads.


Each lunchbox bears a coded marking indicating where it is to be delivered.  Many of the dabbawalas are illiterate so they have their own system for this.  Whilst I was taking the photo, I heard a whispered "shooo" - I was getting in the way of the worker!


And so the sorting continues on the side of the pavement, each dabbawala knowing exactly what he's doing and where he's going.


Now, in India one is never alone for long.  With no guide with us today, we were happy to wander around and make our own way here and there.  But standing in the station watching, we acquired a new friend who was happy to chat about the lunchboxes, to offer advice and information and who was keen to stay with us - though we simply offered our thanks and a few rupees and took his card.  He did, however, wave to us from across the street to say we should come over and see what was going on there.  Thanks!!


Here were more lunchboxes, both old, traditional tiffin carriers...


and new, modern carriers from a lunchbox delivery service, because these days, not everyone is lucky enough to have a wife or mother at home, making their special lunch for them.  In that case, there are companies who will do this for you, restaurants who offer the special lunchtime delivery service and many, many small businesses operating from kitchens across the city providing hot, tasty lunches every day.


We watched as one dabbawala loaded up his bicycle and chatted to him about his heavy load.


He was delivering a dozen or so lunchboxes to the area near the museum by bicycle, a distance of a couple of miles or so through heavy traffic.  Devank Agrawac was looking forward to a tasty lunch, I'd imagine - it's on its way!


With a smile and a ring of his cheerful bicycle bell, he was off on his way.  This afternoon, when all the lunches have been eaten and enjoyed, it will all happen in reverse, for the dabbawalas will collect all the empty lunchboxes and return them to the station for the journey home.  Tomorrow, it will all begin again, in the same way as it has done for years and years.

Fascinating.  Read more about the dabbawalas and their work here!

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