The Mumbai working lunch

Each day 'dabbawallahs' collect lunches from apartments and deliver them to thousands of workers in the city. Jeremy Hart reports
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The Independent Online

The traffic lights outside Churchgate Station are red. And for a second the mayhem of Mumbai driving takes a breather. Hawkers are selling everything imaginable to drivers as they wait for green. A team of men balanced precariously on bamboo ladders are changing the Bollywood poster above the Art Deco Regal Cinema. Across the road, on a patch of brown grass, kids in whites are chasing the Indian cricket dream.

The most bizarre sight comes though when I check my rear-view mirror. There, above the dented roof-tops of black-and-yellow taxis, bob what look like two pall-bearers. Balanced between them is a 5ft wooden crate, supporting 50 rattling insulated tin tiffin boxes, or lunch containers, known in Mumbai as dabbas. That makes the men carrying them dabbawallahs - as much an institution as the London bobby.

Before the lights change, two more pairs of dabbawallahs fire across the bows of my Indian-built Ford Fusion, so close I fear this is where its unblemished bodywork (a rarity in Mumbai) will lose its sheen. They too are heading for Churchgate at the end of a daily operation that feeds half a million people with home-cooked food, delivered to them at work by an army of dabbawallahs.

Each day, 5,000 dabbawallahs descend on appartments across Mumbai to collect a home-made lunch and take it up to 30 miles across town to office and factory workers. "The British used dabbawallahs because they wanted their own food for lunch," explains Farida Dordy, a guide who uses a dabbawallah each day. "But they were just one group who preferred to have their own kinds of food for lunch. My husband and I are Parsi. He prefers a Parsi meal for lunch, so I or our maid Sulbha will cook him lunch and the dabbawallah will pick it up just after 9.30am each morning."

Logistically, what the dabbawallah army achieves each day is nigh on impossible. A team of Harvard statisticians has proved as much. Without computers, pretty well without mobile phones, relying on a relay system fraught with the potential for dabbawallahs being late, ill or even dying en route (two did last year), they weave across the city on a spider's web of routes. Churchgate Station is the hub of the dabbawallah network. At 11am, the station forecourt is packed as the lunch carriers pass their tiffin boxes down a supply chain that Forbes magazine rated with six stars - as reliable as GE or Motorola.

"They've never lost one of the lunches I do for my husband. In fact I've never heard of them being late or losing one," says Mrs Dordy, who pays 300 rupees (£4) a month for the service. "These guys are not like delivery people in London or New York, doing it for a short time. They are dabbawallahs for life and they all come from the Sahyadri range of mountains east of Mumbai, from a group of families who have been dabbawallahs since the 1890s. They offer a great service: messages, business, offers of marriage are all sent through the dabbawallah system."

At 2.30pm, about the time I am passing, the dabbawallahs make their return trips through Churchgate. Bicycles and Mumbai's train system are the dabbawallahs' preferred modes of transport. "On a bicycle we are king of the road," says DK Choudhry, a dabbawallah I meet the next day at Mrs Dordy's house. "We can go down no-entry roads, through red lights. You can't do that in your car, can you?" I dare not say yes. Mumbai driving might be free-form but there are still rules.

In terms of car ownership, Mumbai is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. It won't be long before the infrastructure of India's biggest city has to change to accommodate all the new drivers. How much longer before dabbawallahs get motorbikes or even cars? "Never," reckons DK, who each year travels about 6,000 miles for his job.

Any moment now, Mrs Dordy's regular dabbawallah, Papu, will arrive to pick up lunch and take it to her husband at his office. She has prepared a paneer jalfrezi, or cheese curry, which will endure a two-hour journey that involves bike, train and three dabbawallahs following a series of codes inscribed on the tiffin box.

Spot on 9.40am, a wiry man in a loose-fitting Nehru suit and open sandals appears at the door. It is Papu. In 90 seconds he must be gone or he will start running behind schedule, which could throw the whole system out of kilter. Like a ghost on the wind, Papu is away.

DK comes with me in the Fusion to see if we can get to Captain Dordy's office before delivery at 11.45am. DK has never travelled in any car other than one of the marauding black-and-yellow taxis. I fear the shock might distract him from his job. But there is another problem: delayed by my complacency and a delicious breakfast, DK and I leave a half-hour behind Papu; we have about 70 minutes to beat him over 11 miles.

Twenty years of living in London does nothing to prepare me for the gloves-off fistfight of Mumbai driving. DK, though, is smiling. He seems to be enjoying the experience of a crazy European adopting a dodgem driver's attitude to his city. The traffic is glutinous. Each mile takes a good 10 minutes. The clock on the dashboard reads 11.35am. And there's still a mile to run.

Then disaster strikes. In the maze that is Colaba, Mumbai's business district, I miss a turning. For what seems like an eternity DK cannot help. But a unique code on the tiffin box, understandable only to dabbawallahs, pinpoints the area and the street and the building, even the floor number of the delivery address. DK points wildly at a dour 1960s office block to our left. Trouble is, the time is now almost 11.55am.

"You Jeremy?" enquires a suave middle-aged man as we puff out of the lift. I nod. "Glad you are here. We didn't want to start lunch without you."

I am gutted. DK is not sure whether to be disappointed or pleased that we have lost by nearly 20 minutes. "It shows that the old ways are better," he tells me. "The car was much nicer, much more comfortable, and, if we had left on time, just as quick. I'd much rather go by car every day. I just think I might have trouble delivering 35 lunches in time."

For £35 per person, Indus Tours and Travel (020-8901 7320; industours.co.uk) will organise a day with the dabbawallahs delivering lunches in Mumbai by train and bicycle. It offers seven nights in Mumbai from £1,150 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, private transfers and b&b accommodation.

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