During her college years, Mahtab Narsimhan would take a 10 am Churchgate (fast) train every day. In the rush hour, when compartments were packed with more people than they could hold, she would watch the dabbawallas swiftly board the train with large metal carriers on their heads. “Back then, their presence in the congested trains would annoy me,” admits Narsimhan. But today, she remains ever grateful to those daily train rides, for her latest book, The Tiffin (Hot Key Books; Rs 299), revolves around the popular Mumbai tiffin delivery service.
The beginning of the book reminds one of the acclaimed 2013 film, The Lunchbox. A woman writes a plea for help to her lover and carefully places it between the folds of a warm chapatti. A fan of the Irrfan-starrer, Narsimhan points out that while the movie was a love story, The Tiffin is about a boy who longs to belong. Only one in 600,000 tiffins is misplaced and, quite predictably, the young woman’s is the one. The misplaced tiffin changes the life of young Kunal, who then seeks the help of dabbawallas to find his family.
“I wanted to write a book about how people not related by blood sometimes forge strong relationships. Mumbai dabbawallas, with their strong sense of community, were the perfect fit,” says Canada-based Narsimhan who made her debut as an author with The Tara Trilogy in 2004. She started work on The Tiffin in 2012 with research on dabbawallas’ system of distribution that relies on the codes on the steel tiffins.
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The story, however, is set in Bombay of 1985 and explores the cityscape through elements such as mouthwatering mutton cutlets and chai of the Irani cafes, bustling chawls and local trains. The book, which was launched in the city on Sunday, also mentions the Mumbaikars’ practise of leaving notes in the dabbas for their loved ones. “In those times, making a phone call was expensive,” she explains, adding, “So it was interesting to follow the story of Kunal, whose life changes due to one misplaced tiffin. And he attempts to reclaim it, joined by the dabbawallas of Mumbai, doing what they do best.”