The modern city of Mumbai is home for the richest and poorest, wealthiest and neediest, best employed and unemployed Indian person. It is the proud host of the luxurious Bollywood Film City and at the same time the sad Mother of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum area. These huge contrasts create so many social ills, realities and phenomena that is unique to Mumbai, and one these phenomena are the Mumbai Dabbawalas. Who are they? What are they?
A dabbawala literally means a ‘box person’. Also spelled as ‘dabbawalla’ or ‘dabbawallah’, the term does not refer to the jobless populace living inside carton boxes, although there are thousands of them in the streets of Mumbai. A dabbawala has a job, and the term ‘box person’ refers to the nature of what they do.
Dabbawalas are casually employed by regular Mumbai office workers to perform one specific function: fetch the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the office workers’ homes and deliver them to their respective offices. Thus, they more accurately are the ‘lunchbox deliverymen’. It is a unique service industry that has gone on through the decades and continues to thrive in several Mumbai suburbs. The lunchbox people are also tasked to return home the empty boxes.
This makes sense to a lot of office workers. They themselves are not being paid heftily and so they think of ways to save money. Buying lunch from restaurants, food courts or office canteens every day could get very expensive after a number of weeks. Preparing lunch could also be tedious since many have to rush early to the office to beat the early morning traffic. (This is easier said than done in Mumbai where the traffic seems to also be in a rush piling up.) Office workers know that it is cheaper and more practical to ‘hire’ a dabbawala than spend lunch money every day. Plus, they get fresh, delicious and clean home-cooked lunch.
Dabbawalas are also sometimes called ‘tiffin wallahs’, making use of the old-fashioned English word ‘tiffin;, which means afternoon snack or light snack. ‘Dabba’ is Marathi for ‘box’, pertaining to the metal cylindrical lunchbox that is very commonly used in India. ‘Wallas’ is a suffix pertaining to the doer or agent.
Tiffin wallahs or dabbawalas have developed a side skill through the years; they are experts in weaving their way through traffic using different modes of transportation (including walking) to get to the office and back to the residences on time. Many of them use bicycles and self-made wooden carts.
Working as a lunchbox deliveryman is considered a real job in India, perhaps comparing to many more types of jobs that are more challenging and odd. Mumbai dabbawalas first became a job option during the rule of the British. The European rulers didn’t like local food so they regularly asked servicemen to pick up their lunch back home and have it delivered to them. Today, the lunchbox delivery system remains way after the British had left. The most common customers now are office workers, businessmen, and affluent families who send freshly cooked lunch to their children in school.