22 January 2012

Mumbai's Dabbawala by Shobha Bondre

Icons of Mumbai
Mumbai’s lunch boys came to public notice and became a world icon of ‘Quality’ when they were certified Six Sigma. I always felt this was rather unfair because so many of Bombay’s systems also work at Six Sigma levels of precision – the doodhwalas, the pauwallahs, the fruitwallahs, the engine drivers, the office boys, the traffic cops (and on and on) without anyone ever stopping to notice. But after reading this book I did get the sense that the success of the dabbawalas is not just a consequence of (a) economic factors and (b) the molecular structure of the professional that Bombay coerces onto its inhabitants. In particular, there is also the clearly-articulated customer philosophy which every member of this exceptional service industry is expected to read and preserve in his record book:
  • The customers should always be treated with courtesy and respect
  • The customers should be dissuaded from using any ‘exotic’ and ‘fancy’ tiffin boxes which are prone to get damaged
  • Except for extremely rare, unforeseen reasons, the tiffin box should always reach the customer on time
  • If a tiffin box is lost in transit, half the cost should be borne by the concerned dabbawala
Another important factor that has made the movement so successful is that it is run as a cooperative – members are not just workers, they are owners.
Corporates should be as clear-headed – no wonder management schools started looking to them for lessons.

Originally written in Marathi, the translator, Shalaka Walimbe, has done a good job of turning the text to idiomatic English. Mumbai's Dabbawala is written partly as the memoir of Raghunath Megde, present president of the association of dabbawalas - his father’s uncle, Mahadu Bacche was the first dabbawala back in 1890, and as such, founder of the association. And, it is partly a historical and descriptive narrative by Shobha Bondre, filling in blanks and creating context and perspective, in alternating chapters.

As memoir, it is engaging, informative about village life in Maharashtra as well as the life of the dabbawala, and often touching, as well-told life stories should be. The author’s narrative is also easy to read and strewn with fascinating detail.
However, there are a few slips which I felt made this book fall somewhat short of perfect. For instance, we are told that when Mahadu Bacche came to Mumbai in 1890,

There were very few restaurants in Mumbai in those days and certainly no fast food outlets. There were only a few Sindhi and Christian housewives who used to provide home-cooked food.
I’m not sure how well the concept of Sindhi and Christian housewives providing home-cooked food fits into this historical framework: to my knowledge, in 1890 most Sindhi housewives were still in Sindh; a large majority of the Christians belonged to the Anglo Indian community, and I’m not sure if its housewives would have considered sending out dabbas to others – surely the larger phenomenon took some decades to emerge.
In another instance, a character introduces himself saying,
This is Rashid miya speaking.
But would any Rashid ever call himself 'miya'?

Mumbai's Dabbawala devotes considerable space to the much-hyped fascination and subsequent association Prince Charles has with the Mumbai dabbawala – including the details of their presence at his wedding to Camilla.
I have a fascination with the Mumbai dabbawalas too: they are a fascinating part of life in that fascinating city, and many of my paintings, which strive to capture its incongruities, feature them.

The part of the book I enjoyed most was Shobha Bondre’s experience of hearing the new management gurus Raghunath Medge and Gangaram Talekar address a gathering of students and executives at a two-day seminar in a luxurious, ultra-modern auditorium in Bombay. These dabbawalas had lived many years of their lives in village huts in rural Maharashtra and tiny overcrowded rooms in Bombay; and many years of their careers running balancing 75 kg lunch-box crates on their heads as they leapt into overcrowded Bombay commuter trains. Shobha Bondre was tense that they would feel out of their depth. “I didn’t even realize when I had stopped holding my breath!” she writes, and goes on to describe just how these wonderful men held their own and charmed the sophisticated crowd with descriptions and lessons from their inimitable lives.

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