For a majority of working people, lunch means packed food from home. And for a small number of them, it is food picked up from home – or food made and packed in a home-like environment – and delivered piping hot, for a fee. Welcome to the world of dabbawalas, by no means new but endlessly appealing.
With newer localities springing up with the promise of jobs, Chennai will see more dabbawalas in the future. But at present, the city has a dabbawala culture that pales next to the ones prevailing in most other metropolises in Chennai. For instance, Chennai’s small army of dabbawalas are no match for the legion of dabbawallas in Mumbai, where incredible numbers of lunch boxes are picked up and delivered daily to students, professionals and also at homes for people who can’t cook for themselves for a variety of reasons. But, going by the steadily rising numbers of dabbawala services, Chennai should eventually get there.
For the Rajappas, who live at Lloyd’s Road, Royapettah, brunch comes knocking on their door at 10.30 a.m. A delivery boy from Visalakshi Catering Service in Mandaveli brings them fresh and hot home-made food. It is a new menu every day. “We find this service extremely helpful because my wife does not have to slog in the kitchen and I do not have to wait to get parcelled food from restaurants,” says 76-year-old K.C. Rajappa, who has availed this service for the last 10 years.
In the last 15 years, Visalakshi Catering Service has gathered customers in Mylapore, Alwarpet, Royapettah and Adyar, testifying to the growing profile of the dabbawala in Chennai. “We do about 60 deliveries a day, barring weekends. Sambar, rasam, poriyal and kootu is what we generally serve,” says R. Krishnamurthy, who runs the service.
One interesting aspect of dabbawala services is their flexibility. They take on different forms, depending on the groups they are meant to serve.
In North Chennai, it is easy to find dabbawala service in its traditional form: men and women going from house to house and collecting home-cooked and delivering them hot to offices and schools by auto-rickshaws or cycle rickshaws. In Vepery, a group of such dabbawalas has been catering to generations of students from Agarwal Vidyalaya Matriculation Higher Secondary School.
Renuka, Swarna, Meena, Latha and Kanchana make up this team which can be seen carrying tiffin boxes and waiting outside the school gate, minutes before before the gong goes off to announce the lunch hour. “When we started the service decades ago, we earned Rs. 20 a day. Now, we make Rs. 200,” says Kanchana, the oldest in the group. Each of the women picks ten to twenty lunch boxes from various areas of Sowcarpet and ferry them on autorickshaws. The women do the best they can, are prompt and seldom absent themselves, but are unhappy about the small earnings at the end of the day. “After paying for the autorickshaw rides – Rs.100 to ferry us up and down – we take home just Rs.3,000,” says Renuka.
Keeping in with the times, dabbawala services in the city are going online.
Anju Mirpuri, a resident of Anna Nagar, is launching Mama Ke Dabba on July 15, but the dabbawala service, which will cater to Kilpauk, Anna Nagar and Nungambakkam, already has a Facebook presence. “That’s the only platform I advertised on,” she says, adding that she is happy with the response.
Online portals is the new face of dabbawala services and it is a face that is beginning to look attractive to more number of people. Dinein.in, for instance, started with deliveries in and around Nungambakkam and, today, by virtue of increasing Internet penetration, also reaches out to customers in Besant Nagar, Adyar and Kilpauk.