Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Dabbawala's Diary

The famous Mumbai Dabbawalas, who deliver over two lakh (0.2 million) tiffin boxes each day from people's houses to their offices, with a success rate of 99.99%, are now being invited to various management institutes to talk about how their system works. Yesterday they were in Bangalore, to share their 'management module' with students of a local college.

Founded in 1890, the Dabbawala Association has apparently never gone on strike nor been involved in any police case. Literacy is not a requisite but the ability to carry 70 kgs of weight is essential! It is truly an amazing organization, one that takes pride in its roots and the unique and dependable service that it provides to Mumbaikars.

I quote below an excerpt from the visit of two Dabbawalas to London (to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla), written originally in Marathi (the speaker is Raghunath Medge) and translated into English by Shalaka Walimbe (The Mumbai Dabbawala: The Uncommon Story of the Common Man) that I read in part in the IIC Quarterly newsletter. Raghunath Medge and Sopanrao Mare represented the association at the royal wedding.

" From that moment onward we had loads to do. We got busier than the bridegroom himself! We had received the invitation on the 1st and the marriage ceremony was scheduled for the 8th of April. That in effect gave us only six days in hand for preparation. We were worried whether we would be able to manage to put everything together in time.
Our daily routine was already a packed one. My day starts very early in the morning. From home, I head straight to our office in Dadar, then to the Grant Road office, followed by a quick visit to Churchgate station and then off to our cooperative credit society office in Andheri. To add to this hectic schedule , there were now visits to the British Deputy High Commission, the Air India office, Hotel Taj Mahal and several other such places.
We are simple, traditioinal and superstitious people. Earlier, well before we got the invitation, when we had leart that Price Charles would be taking his wedding vows on 8th April, a 'no moon' day, we were quite perturbed. It is considered an inauspicious day by us Hindus. Without making it public knowledge, we dabbawalas had organised a pooja and a special ceremony on 13th March at the Sanyas Ashram temple in Mumbai in order to appease the stars and ward off evil. We had pleaded with the Almighty, 'Lord, though it is the no moon day, may the Prince's wedding be celebrated without any obstacle.'
Just at this time, Pope John Paul II passed away and the wedding was postponed by a day as Prince Charles decided to go to The Vatican to pay his condolences. Reassured by the change in the wedding date, we continued with our pre-departure preparations.

...In spite of the magnitude of it all, we remained firmly rooted to the ground. While the world outside was busy rejoicing and congratulating us, our families busied themselves preparing us for our voyage. Our wives packed our staple diet of bhakri and chutney for our journey. They also packed us chivda for evening snacks. They were worried, 'God alone knows what they will get to eat on the plane and Hotel Taj Mahal there. Our husbands should not go hungry.'
In the meantime , somebody told Sopanrao, 'I have heard that water is very expensive in London.' Promptly Sopanrao's bag was filled up to half its capacity with bottles of water!
To gift the Prince and his bride, we carried with us til laddoos, a framed greeting card with a tricolour background and a pearl studded magalsutra (the necklace that Indian women wear once they are married) for Camilla. After all, we now looked upon her as our future sister-in-law. Earlier, our association had sent a turban and a green sari for the royal couple - this was before we were invited for the wedding.
Well, food and gifts were taken care of. Then came the question of clothes. What should we wear? Somebody said, 'If you don't wear a suit you will not be allowed to enter the church.' But I was not convinced. Though I didn't say so, I was sure that after we had received such an exceptional invitation, nobody would stop us over a matter of clothes.
Finally, on 7th April, late in the evening, we boarded the Air India flight to London. I wore a shirt and trousers, while Sopanrao wore his traditional attire of kurta-pyjama.

...At eight o'clock sharp, Oliver Brend came to pick us up. Mr. Brend was an official of the Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation. First, he took us to Buckingham Palace. From there we went in a luxurious 28-seater bus to Windsor Palace along with some other members of the royal household. Here, we were to attend the ceremony in the chapel and bless the royal couple.
The organization was excellent. Every chair had a number and a name attached to it. Guests from all over the world, 750 people, had been invited for the ceremony, but there was no confusion or disorder. Everyone was escorted to his or her seat.
Sopanbhau and I were both a little overwhelmed but of course very happy to be there. We were dazzled by the grand sight and felt as if we were in Lord Indra's (the King of the Gods) court!
The glitter and the glamour, the huge chandeliers, the well-dressed gentlemen and the women dripping with diamonds and other jewels left us speechless!
In fact we had been almost silent since we left the hotel this morning. We didn't have an option! There was no interpreter with us today and for the life of us we couldn't make sense of all the 'Yes-Phess' going on around us.
So there we were, sitting quietly, when we heard a voice asking us in Hindi from the seat next to ours, 'May I help you?'
We turned our head and saw an Indian lady, dressed in Indian clothes, smiling at us. She introduced herself. She was the Maharani of Jaipur, Maharani Padmini Devi! We too introduced ourselves. She was very kind and assured us, 'You will not have a problem of language! I will interpret for you!' Once again we were left speechless. There were no words to express our thanks to this gracious lady!

...Prince Charles and his bride Camilla were now greeting their guests. They were smiling and talking to them. We stood out because of our Gandhi caps! They noticed us and started coming in our direction. I immediately took a quick look at my right palm. Do you know why? In the morning, before leaving the hotel, I had written down a sentence there, in English, in ball-point pen, 'We wish you a very happy married life!' There wasn't going to be an interpreter with us at the ceremony and I was not quite sure I would remember the whole sentence correctly at the last moment! I have never cheated during exams but this time I had taken care to see that I don't fail!
I kept on repeating the sentence in my mind and the moment I saw Prince Charles in front of me, I quickly repeated it. Prince Charles smiled and said, 'Thank you.' He then shook my hand and started talking to me as easily as he would talk to a friend, 'We received the gift you sent from Mumbai two weeks ago. We liked the turban and the green sari for Camilla very much. And most importantly, we appreciate the sentiments behind the gift. I will always treasure your gifts as a fond memory of you. Please say hello on my behalf to all the dabbawalas in Mumbai. Tell them I remember them.'
When Padmini Devi translated Prince Charles' words into Hindi, I had tears in my eyes. My throat felt constricted with emotion and I couldn't utter a single word. Madame Camilla arrived at that moment. Prince Charles introduced us to her. She too smiled and said, 'I liked your gift. Thank you very much.' We just nodded our heads in reply.
Now that we had met the royal couple, we could have left. But Padmini Devi said, 'Come, I will present you to Queen Elizabeth, you can talk to her for a couple of minutes.'
A couple of minutes! It was well over five minutes and the Queen was still talking to us. She asked us lots of questions. Padmini Devi, our kind interpreter for the day, answered the questions on our behalf. I felt as if all this was a dream and I just didn't want this dream to end!"

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