The Dabba Roster

I remain a Mumbai train loyalist. Not only is the Mumbai Metropolitan Railway, the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in Mumbai, it also gives you a slice of what I think of as ‘the real Mumbai life’. Frantic students cramming in seat-huddles tell you that the board examinations are around the corner. A bling-ey group chatters away about the wedding they’re off to in the matrimony season. Office-goers – peons, sales executives, doctors, journalists run shoulders (okay, bodies) in the nau-dabbon-ki-jalad-lowkulll.


And speaking of dabbas, how about the other dabbas? The ones carrying piping hot nourishment, lovingly made by mothers and wives and cooks across the city and delivered Just In Time for lunch to their hungry patrons? To the uninitiated, the dabbawallas are a network of deliverymen who carry lunchboxes from homes to offices and back using a never-fail above-world-class system of colour coding. An Ivy League US b-school used them as a case study and the concept has picked up much visibility since then.

I was at the station at a later hour than my usual and had a chance to catch one little thread in this vast nervous system that feeds the city. Truly, the dabbawallas do Mumbai proud. It makes one choke up just seeing the neatly lined up lunch boxes.

The train pulled in and I got into the compartment. And there I met yet another Mumbai railway relic – the train sellers of trinkets. Of course their wares vary from hour to hour. So the early morning hears a nasal twang hawking railway timetables and ginger sweets (Adrak ki goli, rupaye ka teeeeeeen…). Move into rush hour and a topi-clad teenager waves a newspaper in your face (Mid-Day…Mid-Day..Midddd-Dayyyyy..). Stagger out of rush hour and we’re into trinket territory.

Presumably there’s more space to display these wares in the late morning/early afternoon hours when the commuters are dispersed across seats instead of crammed into them. The target audience a.k.a. college kids also make their journey upto campuses around this hour.


Fifteen rupees buys you a spider-clamp clip or a pair of fake pearl-drop chandeliers. Put in twenty more and you can have your pick of a retro headband (Cosmo-inspired) or a matching bracelet. Haggle a bit and you just might get a free scrunchie thrown in for good measure. Or a super-long string of beads that can be used as an anklet, doubled or tripled into a neckpiece, wrapped around a bag-strap, woven into a hairdo, wrapped around the waist or just slung over the neck.

And finally, let’s never forget that we’re home to the biggest entertainment industry in the world and talent is found in unexpected places. I see this girl often on the trains, always accompanied by a little boy with a harmonium. She hops on to the train with the same off-to-work expression that is mirrored by the other commuters in the compartment. They wait till the train picks up speed and everyone is settled in, bags put away in the upper rack, seating negotiated. Then he starts picking the chords and the girl starts, wherever she is standing – usually right in the center aisle. Her compact size and nimble feet make it possible for her to prance in the little spaces between commuters as well, deftly avoiding people’s feet. Then they stop mid-song to scope out the crowd and if it doesn’t look very interested or moneyed they move on to another dabba.

Maybe in a few years she’ll make it to Jhalak Dikhla Ja or perhaps he’ll be the next Indian Idol. Or maybe they’ll just be street kids on a Mumbai train.

7 thoughts on “The Dabba Roster

  1. I finally got the chance to ride the local trains πŸ™‚ .. and it was pretty good till we reached dadar and then it got a bit tooo crowded and that too at 10PM !! ..

    there were no hawkers at that time, but the ride was fun πŸ™‚

    … was a tight scheduled trip last time .. i’ll be in mumbai again sometime after wednesday

  2. @ Homecooked: πŸ™‚ And thank you for dropping into the Idea-smithy! I’ve added you to my feed-reader so I guess I’ll bump into you again.

    @ ajit: I love that description.

    @ Jassi: πŸ˜› Yeah, we’re quite the devils aren’t we, in the dabbas?

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