Way to finding family is through 'dabbas'

Way to finding family is through 'dabbas'

The Tiffin
Mahtab Narsimhan
Hot Key Books2014,
pp 162
Rs. 299

Numerous stories have been woven around the dabbawallas of Mumbai and their stellar record of safely delivering lunch boxes to their intended recipients.

The amazing part of this legendary system is that only one in six million lunch boxes gets lost in transit. Call it a quirk of fate or destiny, the pathetic plight of 12-year-old Kunal, the protagonist of The Tiffin, is the result of that one in millions mistake. The novel has the backdrop of a lunch box carrying an important message from an unwed pregnant woman not finding its way to her boyfriend.

The result: the baby born out of wedlock, named Kunal, is left in the care of Mr & Mrs Seth, who run a dilapidated cafe. Cut to present, we find Kunal working long hours at the cafe owned by his foster parents, facing physical and mental harassment to no end. However, this doesn’t deter Kunal from dreaming big — of going to school someday, like the other children his age, and of finding his mother so that he can have a loving family to call his own.

The story progresses thus till one fine day Kunal decides to leave the dhaba for good and take refuge in his sympathiser dabbawalla Vinayak’s home. It is at this juncture does he learn about his parentage, and that his mother worked as a financial analyst. His only mission in life now is to track her down in Financial District.

Sounds a bit predictable, ain’t it? Not really. For, the author deftly steers the storyline such that the reader is left with no option but to put the book down only after he’s done reading it in full. So captivating is the narrative that takes the readers along in Kunal’s quest to find his mother.

In comes the dabba again. Kunal wants to become a dabbawalla so that his search for his mother is easier. But, little does he know that gaining acceptance as a dabbawalla is not easy as the dabbawallas don’t take people from outside their community into their fold easily. Not the one to give up, Kunal manages to become a dabbawalla, and also get the dabbawalla association to agree to send out notes in lunch boxes going to the Financial District!

Will Kunal’s plan yield any results, and will his dream of meeting his mother and having a family of his own come true? Well, that forms the crux of the story that follows. 

The author, with her fluid style of writing, turns a simple story into an instant page-turner. Her careful choice of words too explore an entire gamut of emotions. Sample this — “Kunal glanced up into the ominous face of the sky. He would have cheerfully delivered tiffins in a typhoon in order to meet the woman who had brought him into the world. And ask her why she had abandoned him.” 

The result is an original and emotionally piercing book that tugs at your heart strings. At the same time, the author provides an impressionistic portrait of Mumbai, complete with its incessant traffic and overcrowded local trains — “Before long they were at Andheri Station. As soon as they neared the entrance, a stream of passengers swept them along, like leaves in a strong current, and deposited them into the bowels of the station.”

On the surface, The Tiffin may appear to be all about a boy’s desperate quest to find his mother, but at its heart it’s a story of understanding needs, discovering identities, overcoming hurdles, and above all, finding your family.

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