VIJAY LOKAPALLY speaks to Shobha Bondre about her well-received Marathi book on the Mumbai dabbawallas, recently translated into English

It is a phenomenon that won two humble persons from Mumbai a regal trip to London for Prince Charles’ wedding. To be introduced to Queen Elizabeth by the Prince as “my friends from Mumbai” and having Maharani Padmini Devi of Jaipur as their interpreter was an unforgettable experience for Raghunath Medge and Sopanrao Mare. The two dabbawallas from Mumbai are part of a 5000-strong army of food couriers who deliver piping hot food at your office doorstep. From Virar to Kalyan to Churchgate, they carry out their orders unerringly.

Whatever the constraints, the dabba (box) reaches you in time and it has been superbly narrated by Shobha Bondre in Mumbai’s Dabbawalla, the uncommon story of the common man, published by Westland recently.

Originally written in Marathi (as Mumbaicha Annadata) by Rajhans Publication and translated into English by Shalaka Walimbe in a racy style, the book is a tribute to the dabbawallas, who deliver 2,00,000 meals daily from homes to offices with clockwork precision.

“The dabba is collected from home, assembled at the closest train station, carried to the destination station and delivered to the person concerned. In the evening, it is the reverse cycle. It has gone on for years with amazing punctuality,” reflects Bondre.

“They are a fantastic bunch, these dabbawallas. It doesn’t matter where they collect the box from. It is delivered within three hours regardless of the distance to the destination. They know that food can get stale if not delivered on time. Three hours is the limit,” Bondre says of her interactions with the dabbawallas.

Renowned for her writings in Marathi, Pune-based Bondre, an award-winning author, tells the story in simple prose. “It is partly a kind of memoir of Raghunath Medge (the protagonist of the story and head of the Dabbawallas Association). His father’s uncle (Mahadu Bacche) was the first dabbawala in 1890,” informs Bondre.

The project brought Bondre first-hand experience of how the network functioned. “I travelled with them on the train, saw how they sorted the boxes, at times 1200 of them. It was an amazing journey. For the dabbawallas, work is truly worship, the customer is the most important person in their day-to-day work. Customer satisfaction is so well ingrained in their system and time is sacrosanct. Wrong or late delivery is unacceptable,” she notes.

Author of 15 books — mostly real-life stories, Bondre was fascinated by the subject when she read of how a prince invited two humble dabbawallas to his wedding. “I was keen to transform the news into a book. It was a challenge. They had returned from the wedding and I faced this humungous prospect of profiling some 5000-odd dabbawallas’ journey. After two months or so, I got a fair idea, concentrated on Raghunath as the protagonist and the story became easy to narrate, speaking through him and presenting my observations about them.”

Bondre would meet the dabbawallas every evening, mostly in Andheri at their office, and wove a story on the huge success of the dabbawallas. “In 1990 it was on the verge of collapsing but Raghunath revived the business of delivering tiffin. It has become a model now. They have name and fame but sadly no money. But it doesn’t matter. They are happy and have conveyed a beautiful message. Success can never be measured in terms of money. You have to understand the dabbawalla to understand this beautiful fact of life,” she says.

The uncommon story of the common man can be a great subject for a movie. “It would be a fitting tribute to their work,” concludes Bondre, who highlights the management skills of the dabbawallas through description of Medge and Gangaram Talekar’s address to students and executives at a seminar in Mumbai.

Who brings the dabbas for the dabbawallas? “They carry their own.” Piping hot like they deliver? We would not know!