The Dabba Roster

February 17, 2008

I remain a Mumbai train loyalist. Not only is the Mumbai Metropolitan Railway, the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in Mumbai, it also gives you a slice of what I think of as 'the real Mumbai life'. Frantic students cramming in seat-huddles tell you that the board examinations are around the corner. A bling-ey group chatters away about the wedding they're off to in the matrimony season. Office-goers - peons, sales executives, doctors, journalists run shoulders (okay, bodies) in the nau-dabbon-ki-jalad-lowkulll.

And speaking of dabbas, how about the other dabbas? The ones carrying piping hot nourishment, lovingly made by mothers and wives and cooks across the city and delivered Just In Time for lunch to their hungry patrons? To the uninitiated, the dabbawallas are a network of deliverymen who carry lunchboxes from homes to offices and back using a never-fail above-world-class system of colour coding. An Ivy League US b-school used them as a case study and the concept has picked up much visibility since then.

I was at the station at a later hour than my usual and had a chance to catch one little thread in this vast nervous system that feeds the city. Truly, the dabbawallas do Mumbai proud. It makes one choke up just seeing the neatly lined up lunch boxes.

The train pulled in and I got into the compartment. And there I met yet another Mumbai railway relic - the train sellers of trinkets. Of course their wares vary from hour to hour. So the early morning hears a nasal twang hawking railway timetables and ginger sweets (Adrak ki goli, rupaye ka teeeeeeen...). Move into rush hour and a topi-clad teenager waves a newspaper in your face (Mid-Day...Mid-Day..Midddd-Dayyyyy..). Stagger out of rush hour and we're into trinket territory.

Presumably there's more space to display these wares in the late morning/early afternoon hours when the commuters are dispersed across seats instead of crammed into them. The target audience a.k.a. college kids also make their journey upto campuses around this hour.

Fifteen rupees buys you a spider-clamp clip or a pair of fake pearl-drop chandeliers. Put in twenty more and you can have your pick of a retro headband (Cosmo-inspired) or a matching bracelet. Haggle a bit and you just might get a free scrunchy thrown in for good measure. Or a super-long string of beads that can be used as an anklet, doubled or tripled into a neck piece, wrapped around a bag-strap, woven into a hairdo, wrapped around the waist or just slung over the neck.

And finally, let's never forget that we're home to the biggest entertainment industry in the world and talent is found in unexpected places. I see this girl often on the trains, always accompanied by a little boy with a harmonium. She hops on to the train with the same off-to-work expression that is mirrored by the other commuters in the compartment. They wait till the train picks up speed and everyone is settled in, bags put away in the upper rack, seating negotiated. Then he starts picking the chords and the girl starts, wherever she is standing - usually right in the center aisle. Her compact size and nimble feet make it possible for her to prance in the little spaces between commuters as well, deftly avoiding people's feet. Then they stop mid-song to scope out the crowd and if it doesn't look very interested or moneyed they move on to another dabba.

Maybe in a few years she'll make it to Jhalak Dikhla Ja or perhaps he'll be the next Indian Idol. Or maybe they'll just be street kids on a Mumbai train.

I call myself a chronic thinker. A few centuries ago, I'd have been called a Thinker. Or burnt at stake for being a witch. My degree is my passport to the world of respectability. I moonlight as a troubled poet, a warrior princess and a closet sorceress. I am all of these and yet none of them is all of me. All I was born to be really, was a story-teller. Scheherazade, Galelio, Cleopatra and Salvador have passed through. This time round, just call me IdeaSmith.
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February 17, 2008
07:26 PM

What, no dabbawallas? :)

Why do you choke up seeing the dabbas? Memories of childhood dabbas?

February 17, 2008
11:50 PM

@ Aaman: Sorry but I couldn't get a shot of the dabbawallas...they were well-immersed in their speedy task and it seemed wrong to interfere. The choking up is a quasi-mini-patriotic feeling of being part of the city that owns this super-efficient system.

February 18, 2008
03:17 AM

The Bombay commuter trains are sui generis -- as transportation, as entertainment, and social phenomenon. I carry a "season pass" during all but my shortest visits to Bombay, and am a huge fan.

A few years ago, I wrote an essay about the Bombay commuter trains, : http://memestreamblog.wordpress.com/2006/02/16/give-and-take-in-mumbai/

Thanks for these lovely vignettes of one of the most amazing systems of man-and-machine in human history.



Deepa Krishnan
March 25, 2008
10:21 PM

Lovely article. Enjoyed it thoroughly!

Nikhil Narayanan
May 6, 2008
05:44 AM

Nice read.
Liked the ending.

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