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Mumbai, British India. Mahadeo Havaji Bachche is one of the thousands of disadvantaged souls who, in that year of 1890, arrived daily in the Northern capital of Maharashtra in the hopes of finding work. It didn’t take long for Mahadeo to realise that, for those who did have jobs, eating lunch was not an easy thing to do: it wasn’t only a problem of money, but of actually finding food for the scarcity of eateries in the area.
In theory, those with families could have someone cook a simple meal of rice and dahl or paratha – the traditional Indian flat bread – and curry, but since it’s a meal that take a while to cook, it was nearly always impossible to have something ready to take away by seven in the morning, when a worker would have to leave home for the day’s work. Which gave him an idea: why not organise a delivery service that sends homemade meals to the workplace, wherever it is?
Why not, indeed. Mahadeo recruited about a hundred young men from the outskirts and organised India’s first delivery service. The delivery boys were called dabbawalla (also spelled as dabbawallah, or dabbawala, which literally means, “box-carrier”), and also called, in British colonial jargon, thetiffinwallahs, which came from the term tiffin (meaning “light lunch”, “afternoon snack” or even, in those days, “a nip of whisky”) and their job consisted of picking up the clients’ lunchboxes or dabba (a 4-level copper container) from the requested addresses, either by foot or bicycle, and then deliver the lunch to them at 12,30 sharp.
The cost of the service was two rupees a month, and it ended up being used even by the British, who, not enthusiastic about the local food, would have their lunches prepared for themselves and children by their servants and then have them delivered to their offices or the schools where they taught.
Today in Mumbai, there are about five thousand dabbawallah, who stand out for their uniforms of kurta pyjamas and the fact that they wear the pati, the white hat made famous by Ghandi. One person uses a bicycle to pick up the dabbas by 9am from about thirty different addresses and then brings them to the nearest railway station. Then another person loads the right lunches onto the right train. The third rides on the train with the tiffin. The fourth picks up the boxes from the station and, once again by bicycle, distributes them to the various offices by 12,30pm. The empty dabba are picked up by 5pm and they are brought back to their original addresses by the same team, following the same procedure.
There are about 300,000 lunches delivered in Mumbai each day, and the service is so necessary that it’s recession-proof, with a constant annual increase of between 5 and 10 percent, even now that restaurants and catering services offering an infinite variety of foods at competitive prices are ubiquitous. Service is guaranteed even during the torrential rains of the monsoon season, it costs between 25 and 40 rupees per month (maximum 40 dollars) and the margin of error is an impressive one out of eight thousand deliveries – an acceptable ratio for both clients and providers, despite the fact that “error is horror”. Clearly, a lunch prepared by one’s wife or mother really has no competition: when love is the main ingredient., there is no market prince.
A “royal” appreciation for the dabbawallah came from Prince Charles, who, during an official visit to India found the time – surprising even his minders – to meet with some of them, and on 9 April 2005 a few were even present as guests during his wedding to Camilla Parker Bowles. While they’ve been operating since 1890, while still under British while, the dabbawallah received an official recognition only in 1956, when they were allowed to register their association under the name Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust.
Fifty years later, Forbes magazine praised them for their excellent quality of work and their superior organizational skills. And the current director of the team of messengers (many of whom are illiterate and manage to distinguish the various tiffins according to a series of red markers), Sopan Laxman Mare, is a highly-respected speaker and is a frequent lecturer at India’s best business schools.
The speediness of the dabbawallah has become legendary: just ask the troupe from the BBC that came to Mumbai to shoot a documentary about them a few years ago, and weren’t able to keep up with the selected team of messengers – of whom they lost sight almost immediately. And so they tried again and again. Of course, nobody told Prince Charles about the debacle. But the Empire has clearly been over for some time now.