This is a small music quiz for you.
1) What is harmony?
2) What is a beat?
3) How is this connected with the dabbawallahs of Mumbai?
I finished my Senior Cambridge exams, which happened in December. This is unlike standard board exams, which are in April or so. So, I had a good 5 to 6 months before I could enroll in a college course. The axiom then was that an idle mind is a devil’s workshop. So before the shaitan could start applying for a three-phase connection to create a pattarai (Tamil word for workshop), I was carted away to ‘Amchi Mumbai,’ where my brother was posted.
So with trepidation, I set out to Bombay, as it was called at that time, bag and baggage. The plan was that I was to try out several career-oriented courses, and if I liked any, I would sign up. Since the earliest I could sign up…… I’ll leave that to your intelligence, dear reader. The experiment didn’t work so well, especially ‘the aaplla manoos’ part of the scenario, and so I was back, bag, baggage, and experience in Madras by about April.
During the four months in Bombay, I got a job as an apprentice audit clerk with a chartered accountant firm in Nariman Point. I was living with the bro in Borivli. In those days, the mid-seventies, Borivli was at the edge of civilization. Those morning train rides from Borivli to Churchgate and back were eye-opening. Everything went about in sheer harmony (clue number 1). If you rode the same compartment, you were with the same folks, and you were kind of guaranteed the same seat. Don’t ask me how. Things just happen in Bombay.
Then, I noticed these guys in off-white kurta-pajamas, with a neta cap to boot, scurrying around with long crates with similar-looking containers. They boarded the luggage compartment, and there was a minimum fuss in their operation until you crossed their path. Then all of hell would break loose.
With some Sherlock Holming, I discovered that these were Mumbai’s dabbawallahs. Now that the stage is set let’s burrow in.
The dabbawallas coordinate home-cooked meal delivery to thousands of Indian office workers and have provided them a modest $3-7 monthly charge.
Some insights which you might not have known:
A lil’ bit of history
Dabbawalas first came into existence in 1890, when a Parsi banker in Mumbai’s Ballard Pier needed lunch delivered to his office. The banker asked a migrant named Havji Madhu Bacche to bring the food to his office in Mumbai. Meals were initially delivered by the many migrant workers living in Mumbai, but this changed as home cooks began preparing food for working people. Because of this, the number of dabbawalas steadily increased over 130 years.
The founding principles of the dabbawallas
The system has a moral code intertwined with the bhakti movement, called the Varkari Sampradaya, which treated all peoples as equals. This clashed with traditional Hinduism, which had varnas, where Brahmins were the masters of all the religious rites and were considered the go-betweens in the worshipper-God relationship. In the Varkai sampradaya, no one was superior or inferior; food was supreme as it was considered a common thread connecting humanity. No food was impure. So, serving food was considered an ultimate prayer.
Food is food, period. Since food is supreme, and nothing is impure, beef curry or mutton biryani is treated the same way a sattvic vegetarian meal is treated. This meant there were no religious distinctions; a Muslim’s tiffin was picked up and delivered the same way a Christian’s or an Iyer’s vegetarian meal was handled.
The lineage believes that they are the descendants of the great warrior Chatttrapati Shivaji, and the dabbawalla’s ancestors were foot soldiers of the great Maratha. Since there was no need for soldiers, they chose a profession aligned with their beliefs. “Our families believe that providing food is punya, a worthy action that brings religious virtue: work is worship. Serving food is considered a worthy action,” says Raghunath Medge, the President of the Mumbai Tiffenmen’s Association.
The dabbawallahs operate as a cooperative. This means there is no boss or subordinate. All are equal partners, including the supervisors who are called mukadams, who are elected. So there is no ‘yes sir, no sir’ culture. All are equal.
Every dabba is delivered to the client’s office on a handcart right before lunchtime. The dabbawala who initially picks up the lunch is not likely to be the one to deliver it. After being sorted, the lunches are loaded onto a train and distributed to different parts of Mumbai. Six days a week, dabbawalas ferry upwards of 130,000 lunch boxes from customers’ homes to their offices with remarkable accuracy: they navigate a congested city on trains, bikes, and autos, with no help from technology and not a mobile phone either. So Mr. Venkateswaran Iyer gets his rice, sambar, curds, and pickles while Mr. Verghese Puttemeparayil gets his parottas and beef fry while Mr. Mustafa Moideen gets his……..you get the general drift by now, right?
The way the codes work
Since the pick-up person and the delivery dabbawallah are different, how does the right dabba reach the right person? Here is where the hieroglyphs on the dabba begin to make sense.
There are four codes that are color coded on every dabba. There are other codes to narrow the delivery point further. So, in general, each letter in the color shows,
(1) the collection points,
(2) the starting station,
(3) the number for the destination station and
(4) markings for the destination – building and floor.
Let’s understand a similar code S 11 30 J 2.
So, to you and me, this is gibberish, just like music notation is to a layman. But to a dabbawalla, it is a complete address, like latitude-longitude is to a pilot or sailor. By the way, the pilot/sailor uses a GPS while the dabbawallah still relies on the codes. So blah to you, ye four stripers.
S – means Mira Road station – the point of entry in the train
11 – is Churchgate Station – the point where the dabba gets out of the train network
30 – Colaba area
J – a specific office building in the Colaba area, in this case, the Raheja Building
2 – second floor of the building
So effective is the dabbas delivery system that the President of Mumbai’s Tiffin Men’s Society claims that the dabbawallas only commit an error once every six lakh delivery. This amounts to roughly one missing delivery every two months. This is the estimate by Ragunath Medge, president of Mumbai Tiffinmen’s Association, and is not based on any scientific study.
Internationally well known
The dabbawallahs’ delivery system has become so well-known and fascinating that it has captured people’s attention worldwide. The 5,000-person cooperative is widely regarded as one of the most effective logistics networks in the world, despite its reliance on an unskilled workforce, a two-tier management system, and no technology more advanced than Mumbai’s train network. They bring in some extra cash by hosting high-ranking officials from shipping companies like FedEx and Amazon. Richard Branson, of all people, has invested a day in uncovering their techniques.
Their connection with the Royals of England
The first time Prince Charles of Wales visited India in 2003, he wanted to meet the dabbawalas, but the dabbawalas insisted on two things. They can’t inconvenience Mumbai’s two hundred thousand maharajas (customers) to meet the prince, now King, so they will meet with Prince Charles in their spare time after serving tiffin instead. Second, Prince Charles must personally meet with them. Prince Charles agreed to both terms.
The two office-bearers of the Mumbai Dabbawalla Organization, Raghunath Medge and Sopan Mare were subsequently extended invitations to the April 2005 wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker. They both went to this wedding.
They presented Prince Charles and Camilla with a sari and kurta.
On the occasion of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018, the dabbawalas presented a hand-woven Paithani sari, a specialty of the Indian state of Maharashtra’s Paithan region. Meghan Markle received an orange and green sari, while Prince Harry received an orange kurta, lehenga, and Maharashtrian turban.
The dabbawalas mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
The present-day competition to the dabbawallas
The modern-day Uber Eats, the Deliveroos, the Swiggys, and the Runnrs of the world are being given a run for their money by the dabbawallas. Sorry for the pun; Runnr, run for the money. I just had to do it. “There’s no competition. They won’t be able to keep up with the service we provide,” says Kiran Gavande, a Lower Parel dabbawalla. “There’s only one Mumbai dabbawala.”
Now, what is the moral of the story?
-You don’t need a skilled force to make your operation a success
-You need to believe that what you do is a service to humanity and God
-You do not need a multi-tier corporate setup. Just a lateral format works
-All employees are equal. If one person slips up, the entire network is down.
Like any good music, the dabbawallahs operate in harmony
Like you can predict the next beat, the dabbawallahs deliver your tiffin box on time, every time.
Jai Sri Vitthala!
“Mumbai Dabbawala or Tiffin Wallahs: 200,000 Tiffin Boxes Delivered Per Day” by babasteve is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
“Dabba Markings I” by Meanest Indian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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