Whether you like Indian food or not, journey with myMEGusta to Bombay, India, where an amazing network brings home-cooked lunches every day to over 200,000 office workers (and returns to bring the containers back home, saving the commuters from hauling them on crowded trains).
Known as dabbawallas (lunch box deliverers), this network of messengers spreads throughout the metropolitan area mid-morning, picking up lunch boxes, moving them from one transit location to another, often 3 – 4 times, and delivers them to hungry workers by mid-day.
On a recent trip to India, we stopped at an official meeting point, no signs of organized action other than lunch packages lining the sidewalk while workers methodically eyed their markings and loaded them for travel by trains and bikes. From there they may have gone to a final destination, or perhaps to another distribution center (in a different neighborhood).
Each dabba is marked with a unique code, indecipherable to us, but which indicates the pickup location, transit spots and final end point. Remarkably, they rarely make a mistake. And, they never get stolen.
The boxes used to be tiffins, cylindrical metal boxes with compartments for different items, but today they are more likely to be insulated containers (to hold the heat), although a traditional tiffin might be inside.
So, why “dabbawalla”? The word for lunch box is dabba, and for delivery, walla. You may remember that the protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire was taunted by the quiz show host for being a chaiwalla, or tea deliverer in a Bombay call center.
As often happens with packed lunches, from kindergarten throughout life, people don’t necessarily eat their own, sharing portions or tastes with their friends. Sometimes, office workers join forces, and each person is responsible for feeding the gang on specified days, especially when someone’s mother or wife is well known for a favorite dish. What do people who live alone do on those occasions? Maybe order in for the group on a specified day, just like anywhere else.
And, what about working women? Because people usually live at home prior to getting married, and at that, live with an extended family, there is almost always a mother or an auntie at home to prepare that lunch (or more than one when people work in different locations) every morning, and have it ready for dabbawalla pickup.
Prince Charles visited Bombay (aka Mumbai, and both are correct) prior to his marriage to Camilla, and he was so fascinated by this that his people set up an audience for the Chief Dabbawalla, who would only agree to a ten minute meeting, and stuck to it. Subsequently, he was the only Indian invited to the Royal Wedding, and he went.