Late every morning at Mumbai, in India, rows and rows of neatly stacked dabbas (boxes) with weird markings on the top are trundled across busy office buildings. At fifteen to one, a cloth capped man delivers one of these cylindrical boxes on my table in the Fort area. At once I open the case and find the lunch my mother had packed. Hot lunch delivered at the doorstep.

Is this the same food my mother packed for me? Or was it packed by someone’s wife for her husband working in the Mumbai docks? Could the dabbawala have made a mistake? I immediately call home to check. No, it’s the same four idlis and chutney. What is incredible is that all the boxes are identical and yet each one gets to the right person in time for lunch! How on earth the dabbawala manages to differentiate one dabba from the other seems a mystery at first thought. Amazing! Incredible but true.

The dabbawalas of Mumbai
The dabbawalas of Mumbai [Illustration by Shiju George]
The dabbawala service is unique to Mumbai and Pune. In Mumbai it is often impossible to get a table at restaurants without a prior booking! Everyone loves eating out – after all it is a change from the regular ghar ka khaana (home-cooked food). But to eat out every single day is also difficult as then you start craving for healthy home food.

Millions of office goers in Mumbai, feel the same way too. This is why many Mumbai-ites and to a certain extent Puneites rely on the tiffin carrier service or dabba service which delivers food from home. Office goers travel enormous distances to their place of work. People leave home early, and instead of taking packed lunch (which will turn cold anyway by lunchtime) they prefer the dabbawala service.

For a small fee the dabbawala picks up the freshly packed lunch from his house and delivers it to his/her office hot at lunchtime. Once lunch is over, the empty dabba is again collected by the dabbawala. Since Mumbai has an extremely efficient railway system, the dabbas are placed aboard a special train know as the dabbawala special. Along the route, at intermediate stations the boxes are off-loaded or loaded in for final delivery by a second set of dabbawalas.

The tiffin carrier service is believed to have originated in the 19th century. At that time new residential areas, away from the business district, were being set up and people were finding it very difficult to go back home for lunch. Carrying lunchboxes wasn’t a feasible solution since no one wanted a cold meal!

A Parsi banker finally found a solution. He employed a carrier to fetch his lunch every afternoon. The idea caught on and this inspired many unemployed people to become dabba carriers. Soon each dabbawala had a handful of customers and they differentiated between dabbas by tying coloured strings.

To ensure that each carrier worked only in a particular district and didn’t interfere with other dabbawalas, a union called ‘Mumbai Tiffin Box Carriers Association’ was formed in 1968.

But with growing population, it became difficult to separate one lunchbox from another with coloured string alone. Realising the problem, the Association laid down a set of rules. Each dabba lid was to be marked with a particular code. For example NXXF where N denotes the dabbawala’s number (assigned by the association) XX is a combination indicating the building and F is the floor number of that building where the tiffin-box has to be delivered.

The lid is also marked with a number denoting the railway station where the tiffin-box has to be off-loaded, followed by an alphabet indicating the station of pick up.

But how do you join the exclusive hot-lunch eating crowd? The dabbawalas operate by word-of-mouth publicity. The service charges vary between Rs 150 ($3) to Rs 300 per month, depending on the customer’s location (and the distance covered). In this age of e-commerce, certain websites have made the process even simpler by letting people register online!