Carrier men brigade

Sun or rain, the 'carrier-men' cycled in all kinds of weather to deliver the lunch bags on time.

The dabbawallahs of Mumbai are famous – immortalised by movies and media publicity. These 5000-odd men deliver lunch boxes to customers with accuracy and precise timing. Case studies abound analysing this century-old lunch delivery system. A humble system existed when I was a school kid, too.

Lunch times at school in Champion Reefs, KGF,  remind me of a huge shoe-flower tree with lunchbags arranged around the trunk. ‘Carrier-men’, as they were called, were a couple of wiry men who cycled in all kinds of weather with the lunch bags slung over the handle bars.

Maybe between them, they delivered about hundred lunches. They collected the lunchbags from the houses around mid-morning and cycled furiously to arrive wobbling at the gates. In my ten years at school, I never missed a lunch, though I did get my brother’s larger lunch box once (it was an excusable mix-up; the bags were similar and he studied in another school nearby).

We ate our lunch sitting under the trees and dropped the empty bags under them again. We hardly had any eateries outside the school gates, only a few tuck shops selling small quantities of boiled corn, groundnuts, sliced mangoes, star fruit, cotton candy and ice candy.

We never knew what the’carrier-men’ ate after their long ride to school, but they promptly arranged the now considerably lighter bags around their handle bar when the school bell signalled the end of the lunch hour. Reaching the colony faster with their lighter load they delivered the lunch bags to the houses identifying them without any numbers or addresses.

Lunch was always a simple ‘rice, lentils and  vegetable’ meal. Sometimes, if there was a special dry sweet or savory at home, my mother would put it in a small cover pinned on the inside of the bag. Surprisingly, however, it would always be missing when I picked my lunch bag. The mystery of the missing snack was solved cleverly by my mother who began offering a packet of the same to Gangappa, the carrier-man, when he came to collect the lunch bag. It was a silent message that he understood a little shamefacedly, but then I got to enjoy an occasional snack after lunch.

My two storied steel lunchbox with the handle and clip made it resemble a steel well. My friend struggled with the four levels in her lunchbox as she shared her meal with her younger brother. Sometimes the lunchboxes leaked out the aromatic rasam and sambhar.

But on the whole, this system of lunch delivery worked very well for us. Gangappa offered to do gardening during vacations and earned some money till it was time to be “carrier-man” again. That system is no longer in place with mothers today trying to find a lunch box that is spill proof and made of a safe material from the mind boggling variety that line the supermarket shelves; and children carrying breakfast and lunch to school by themselves. I wonder then, if that dwindling tribe of ‘carrier men’ moved on to thrive in Mumbai. I really hope so!

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