The diligent D-force

As the monsoons approach the Indian subcontinent each year, it  brings with it a strong misty smell of nostalgia.

The year 2005. An invite from a dear  childhood friend to provide voluntary medical services for a US university research project was indeed a pleasant surprise. My childhood summer vacations were spent in Bombay with my maternal grandparents. I often shuttled with friends and cousins between Andheri railway station and Victoria Terminus in the local trains. The bogies were packed yet the times were so much fun. After 30-long years those Mumbai local trains were beckoning me once again.

I soon joined the team in Mumbai and  was in the field researching at Andheri station. Among the sea of commuters, I noticed Raghuba for the first time. Precariously balancing a crate on his head, with a few bags slung over his shoulders. He was attired in a simple white jabba-pyjama and a topi, humming a devotional folklore song. Yes, Raghuba was a dabbawala. I failed to believe how a lunchbox delivery person could make a subject for a management research paper.

Our team planned to commute with him and his colleagues. Raghuba’s day had begun an hour earlier. He and another colleague had collected  30 dabbas from households of different society buildings. They placed them on tiffin racks and moved them to the station by foot or by a bicycle. Some dabbas were loaded onto the local trains to Churchgate or Chatrapatti Shivaji stations, while others changed hands 3-4 times in their journey to different parts of the town.

Raghuba moved swiftly even in the packed Mumbai platform, carrying the crates up and down the railway steps on his head and loading them onto the railway bogies. At the last station, they joined an assembly of other dabbawalas and began deciphering a complex but highly effective system of colour codes on the numerous stacks of containers. Raghuba’s share of tiffins were placed onto trollies and he delivered them to the office buildings. The empty tiffins were then returned to the owner’s home in a similar, reverse manner.

26 July 2005. A day that is remembered for nature’s fury of the Mumbai monsoons. The city came to a standstill. Large numbers of people were stranded on the road. It almost seemed that the city was sinking. Many walked for long distances back home from work that evening. Yet we witnessed many dabbawalas delivering tiffins to their customers. These dabbawalas starved for hours but only went home after the job was complete. I remembered Lord Tennyson’s words then:

“Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me/ That ever with a frolic welcome took/ The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed/ Free hearts,  ree foreheads – you and I are old; Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;”
Books, documentaries, the Forbes magazine, a Bollywood movie on a mistaken delivery on Mumbai’s efficient lunchbox delivery system and Prince Charles, have made the Mumbai dabbawala a symbol of pride for India. Globalisation is said to be a macroeconomic phenomenon. But it is so only because it is driven by micro economic forces like these. Isn’t that a sign enough to say ‘Make in India’ has  already arrived?

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