In India, a quirky tradition fades Mealtime: India's dabbawallahs, the men who miraculously deliver hot, home-cooked lunches to Bombay office-dwellers, are threatened by cultural changes.

Sun Journal

August 01, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOMBAY, India -- Lunch hour descends on this humid commercial city, and the anarchic hustle begins.

A thousand men pour from the old British train stations, all shouldering the same shiny cargo and all wearing the same frantic stare. They glance at their watches, mount their bikes and disperse into the traffic and heat.

Minutes later, in an air-conditioned office, Rajesh Sori takes his // delivery: a six-course lunch, spirited from the suburbs so carefully that his favorite Indian foods, dal and chapati, still glow with the warmth of home.

"I only eat home-cooked food," says Sori, 34, sighing. "Food cooked by my wife."

The man who has made this possible -- the man who met Sori's wife at her door at exactly 8: 45 a.m., cradled the lunch through the chaos of the Bombay trains and handed it off to another courier, who pedaled it across the city and into the diamond grader's hands at exactly 12: 45 p.m. -- considers the money he has earned for his efforts:

About 12 cents.

"It's hard work," says Vitthal Dhra, 40, a sinewy father of two. "But I couldn't get this job in the village."

Dhra is known as a "dabbawallah," one of the legion of mostly illiterate, mostly village-born men who scratch out a life by toting hot, home-cooked lunches from Bombay's sprawling suburbs to middle-class office workers downtown for a few rupees a day. The dabbawallahs are one of Bombay's oldest and quirkiest institutions, sustained by a ceaseless stream of cheap labor, one of the world's most extensive commuter train networks and the historical willingness of Indian wives to stay home and cook.

Feeling left behind

Today, as this urban area of 15 million crashes into the modern age, the dabbawallahs are feeling left behind. More women work outside the home and don't have time to cook. Fast-food joints are popping up between the office buildings. As businesses toughen themselves for Western competition, fewer employees have the time to dig into multi-course lunches.

Many of Bombay's dabbawallahs say their services are needed less and less, no matter how fast they pedal.

And still the prospective "wallahs" arrive, pouring out of India's impoverished villages into a labor pool so large that dabbawallahs must always fend off new competitors scouring their neighborhoods for clients.

At Bay Bites, a sandwich stand squeezed between Bombay's modern office buildings and the Arabian Sea, some doubt whether the dabbawallahs will last into the next century.

"My father ate a hot lunch cooked at home every day for 40 years," accountant Nani Daruwala says between bites of a mutton burger. "Times have changed. Lifestyles have changed. My wife works. We don't have time."

The term dabbawallah derives from the Hindi words "dabba," for the bucket-sized metal containers, or tiffins, that most of them use, and "wallah," which means, roughly, "guy."

India's cities are full of wallahs of every sort, performing unpleasant tasks or selling meager items for pathetic salaries. "Dhobiwallahs" do laundry by hand, usually for about 5 cents per piece. "Bidiwallahs" sell cigarettes and betel, the leaves many Indians like to chew as a stimulant. "Dodhwallahs" deliver milk.

The dabbawallahs, who number between 1,000 and 5,000, are (( exclusive to Bombay, India's commercial center. They grew up around the city's extensive commuter train network, begun by the British in the 19th century, which ferries 5.5 million people a day to and from their jobs.

The collection and distribution of the tiffins each day is a miracle of timing and organization performed by a work force that, almost to a man, cannot read or write.

"I've been having my lunch brought from home for 13 years, and I think they've failed to bring it on time maybe three times," says Dominic D'Souza, a clerk in a Bombay textile firm.

Daily routine

The sky is still pink over Bombay when Baban Iyerkar checks the air in his tires before starting on his way. Iyerkar lives in a tin hut with eight other people in an encampment called Kutir Sangam, which nudges one of Bombay's nicer neighborhoods. Kutir Sangam smells of filth and closeness, its 3,000 settlers working and living in pools of muddy water that remain for days after the rains.

Iyerkar, 35, in white flapping pajamas and Nehru cap, pedals his bulky black bicycle for 25 minutes before coming to his first pickup. It is 7: 45 a.m. -- he is right on time. Pallu Madhavlal comes to the door, tiffin in hand.

Iyerkar hooks the tiffin onto his bike and begins pedaling to his next stop 10 minutes away. There he meets Jyoti Desai, who hands him a tiffin full of the Indian culinary pillars: rice, cabbage, chapati and dal. She has prepared the feast for her daughter, Vibha, a bank clerk.

And so Iyerkar continues, pedaling and collecting, for the next three hours, riding nearly 10 miles, gathering 30 tiffins in all, until he reaches the Santa Cruz station just in time to make the 10: 34 a.m. train to downtown.

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