A Mumbai dabbawala delivers lunch in style
Mumbai: It’s a sultry, smoggy afternoon, and Shivaji Sakaram Sawant is looking a little flustered. A slight 57-year-old from the nearby village of Colaba, Sawant is in his 30th year as a dabbawala (“one who carries the box”), part of an army of white-clad men who deliver about 200,000 homecooked lunches to Mumbai’s workers each day.
“This,” he says, as he heads for his last drop of the afternoon, “is the strangest day of work I’ve ever had.”
Since the 1890s, dabbawalas have navigated this city’s crowded, chaotic streets, riding heavy bicycles with lunch tins—picked up from various workers’ homes—dangling from the handlebars. Endurance is vital, as is an encyclopedic knowledge of the city: Mumbai’s dabbawalas are said to make one error per 6 million deliveries, and any deviation from this rate is not taken lightly.
Sawant’s last job today will take him to a movie set, but this isn’t why he’s feeling unsettled. In a publicity stunt organized by a local marketing team, the veteran dabbawala has been selected to make his rounds from the back of a brand new Jaguar XJ luxury sedan, his lunch tins nestled in his lap as he reclines on hand-stitched leather seating. “It’s nice, very quiet,” he says, adding, “I’m afraid to touch anything.”
The traffic, as ever, is terrible, but the car eventually glides to a stop at the set of a Bollywood musical. Followed by a videographer, Sawant hands food to the young dancers, punctuating his delivery with the same courteous bow he always offers his customers. And that’s that. The camera is switched off. The tins are handed back. Sawant leaves the set quietly, on foot, heading off to catch the crowded train that will take him home.
Photograph by Anthony Cullen.