Pandora’s Box?

In Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu) we have a word, “Walla”, which usually serves as a suffix to define a person’s ownership of something, his/her standing in society, profession or even as a label to mark their generic identity.  For instance, the seller of “chai” (tea) at a stall is known as a “chai walla”; the dispenser of “paan” (betel-leaf) and cigarettes is a “paan-beedi walla”; milk delivery men are called “doodh (milk) walla” etc.  While on the surface this might serve well to personify a community or an entire class of peoples, such nomenclature is sometimes also used to deliver a blow “below the belt” as it were, to denigrate a person’s social rank or status.

During the Raj (rule), while expressing horror and wrinkling their condescending noses over the “caste” system prevailing in India, the British thought nothing of their own “class” system travelling with them over the “kaalaa paani” (“Black Waters” – a term commonly used by the more orthodox, or semi-literate Indians to describe the sea passage between India and England).  A nation of some 300 million was administered by around 1,500 administrators, who were meticulously selected for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and groomed to very high standards.  ICS officers were at the very top of the British Raj hierarchy and next in pecking order came the officers of the Armed Forces and thereafter, possibly the doctors.  Strict, formal protocol and unsaid rules of engagement ensured that men and their womenfolk “knew their place” and the “propah (Proper) manner” in which were expected to fraternise; anyone stepping out of line would be severely censured and cut down to size forthwith.  The ultimate slight was delivered by not inviting the offending party to a social event at the local club or worse, to a formal Ball hosted by the top honcho and his illustrious spouse!

Merchants, tradespeople and businessmen sailing over from England to sniff out opportunities and flog their products in India were at the bottom of this societal totem pole.  The traveling salesmen typically carried large portmanteaus (stiff leather suitcases or trunks) to store and display their samples; they were therefore disparagingly referred to as “Box-wallas”.  The British community in India also did not favor the plantation owners and Missionaries and were loath to allow their entry into their so-called upper crust society.  It was customary to “black ball” out-of-favor personalities; this was done through a secret ballot where gentlemen used billiard balls to cast their vote and if the number of black balls exceeded the red balls, an applicant was rejected.

The English word “box” is pronounced as “baks” or “baksaa” in Hindustani and implies a crate or case.  A smaller container is a “dabbaa”, synonymous with the cylindrical aluminum or stainless steel tiffin carrier or Lunch Box used to carry food.  Early in the 19th century, during the British Raj, an enterprising Bombay (now Mumbai) man started a lunch delivery service.  It was born of necessity and designed to cater to the needs of Indian workers and migrants from neighbouring communities who came for work in a city that then lacked office-place canteens or facilities to provide meals during the lunch hour.  There was also a large corpus of illiterate laborers who were unfit to work in offices but provided the muscle to transport food containers between home and office and deliver meals at the work place.  These were the “dabbawallas” (literally, one who carries a box); the tiffin box delivery men.

This service continues to thrive since it was launched 130-odd years ago and has grown to keep pace with Mumbai’s population and expansion.  Picture this daily scenario.  A housewife cooks a meal for her husband or a mother for her child and packs the lunch box.  A dabbawalla arrives at the appointed hour early each morning and collects similar tiffin boxes from each subscribing flat on every floor of all the neighborhood buildings.  This service is also extended to restaurants and caterers proving meals for office-goers.  Hundreds of these dabbas are collected and transported on bicycles, handcarts and trains across the city.  A precise identification system comprising of colored dots is used to pinpoint the collection point, originating and destination train stations and markings that help the dabbawallas determine the building, floor and office or flat number.

The dabbas are delivered to each recipient at his/her place of work across hundreds of office buildings spread over Mumbai before lunchtime.  After lunch, the dabbawalla comes around to collect the empty tiffin box, which is then transported back to its owner’s home.  It is estimated that around 200,000 dabbas are handled each day and that one mistake is made in 8 million deliveries!  The prestigious Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad and Harvard Business School have separately featured business case studies respecting logistics and efficiency of service levels of the dabbawalla system.

Interestingly, the Urdu poet Nadeem Fazli differentiates between boxes, thus:

Chup rahte hai.n jin me.n kuchh bhii hotaa hai Those that contain something, remain silent
KHaalii Dabbe khan-khan karte rahte hai.n (It is) dabbas (containers) which have nothing inside that just clank

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