December 5, 2021

Clockwork couriers

It is 8.30 am and I am almost running, trying to keep pace with dabbawalla Kiran Gawande as he purposefully navigates, on foot, the narrow lanes of central Mumbai’s Lower Parel area. He has already been up and about for two hours, and has travelled by train from the distant northern suburb of Goregaon. For the next two hours, he will go through his usual routine of picking up dabbas on his route, from upscale apartments and small homes alike.

Dabbas are lunch containers, usually with two or three smaller steel containers inside, each carrying a different food item like roti (Indian-style flatbread), dal (lentils) and sabzi (vegetables). The dabba is kept ready for pick up by wallas (service providers). Among middle income families, eating out every day is not an option due to financial constraints. Culturally too, Indians prefer home-cooked food. This keeps the dabbawallas in business.

Gawande is unperturbed when I ask him about competition from restaurants and fast food places. He says, “People don’t like to eat out daily, no? That’s why our business is still strong; nothing like home-cooked food.” For those without access to home cooking, there are small catering canteens such as the Health Awareness Centre founded by nutritionist Vijaya Venkat in 1989. The idea was to promote the cause of healthy living among her clients through specific kinds of food.

A typical dabba from such a place will cost the customer about 3,750 rupees (US$70) per month. But if the food comes from the customer’s home and only has to be collected and delivered, then the charges range from 400 to 500 rupees each month.

Read on for my story on Mumbai’s awe-inspiring dabbawalas in the November issue of Silverkris, Singapore Airlines’ inflight magazine…

At the train station, loading the dabbas to their final destination…

9 thoughts on “Clockwork couriers

  1. I love your photos. Looking at them is making me almost sick with excitement, about my upcoming trip to India. I will be flying into Delhi and then travelling overland to the Andaman Islands, with my 12 year old daughter. 🙂

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