One morning in the suburb of Vile Parle, I fell in behind young Gyaneshwar Medge as he dogtrotted from house to house. At each he picked up from wife or mother a tiffin carrier—an aluminum contraption with four round food compartments and a handle. All bore cryptic symbols. The tiffin carrier I would follow to Bombay bore marks in green paint: VP for Vile Parle, D10 to identify the man who picked it up, and 6X5 to identify building and floor.
By his last stop Gyaneshwar had collected 40 tiffin carriers plus his bicycle. Now he walked it toward the railway station, with the carriers hanging in awkward clusters from handlebars and rear fender.
At the station other dabbawallahs waited, and the first of many furious reshufflings began. Lunch pails were exchanged, sorted by district, put in order on narrow six-foot-long trays. Each man hoisted one of the trays atop his head and made his way into an already crowded second-class carriage.
As the train pulled out, the shuffling continued. New men boarded with more trays, exchanged some of their cargo, and rearranged the rest. At Churchgate Station, frantic now in the morning crush hour, the dabbawallahs assembled on a sidewalk. In an even more frenetic ballet, 50 or more of them passed pails back and forth and arranged them on bicycles, carts, or head trays for the final leg of the journey. Through it all, I kept my eye on VP D10 6X5.
With many stops, Gyaneshwar’s route led into the banking district and up to the New India Assurance Company’s severe granite building. This was the “six” of those mysterious symbols. On the fifth floor Gyaneshwar left the tiffin carrier in a company cafeteria behind about 20 others.
A few minutes later, a surprised office worker named K. A. Desai courteously let me join him as he opened each of his lunch pail’s compartments: tortilla-like chapaties, green beans, rice, lentil soup, chutney, and yogurt. It was, in fact, identical to thousands of other lunches delivered in Bombay that day. But it had come straight from the kitchen of Mr. Desai’s wife, Rashmi. That was the important thing.
Mr. Desai wiped his lips with one of the company’s paper napkins, reassembled his empty tiffin carrier, and put it back where Gyaneshwar would pick it up. By 4:30 it would be back in Mrs. Desai’s kitchen. By 5:00, so would Mr. Desai.
Somehow, in a marvel of organization, each of Bombay’s 3,000 dabbawallahs receives fair pay for the number of lunches he handles, though he takes few of them the whole way from home to office. “I earn about 300 rupees a month,” Gyaneshwar told me. That equals $36. He sends some of it home to his family.If you need more cash you can apply for a loan. Check out how you can apply for safe loans online.
Gyaneshwar shares a room with half a dozen other newcomers to the city. Their status as single men points up a serious problem. Hundreds of thousands of men who have come to the city seeking jobs are either unmarried or have left wives and children behind. The result is a lopsided population: roughly four males to every three females. And no city in Asia has a larger or more flagrant red-light district.