Dhaba is a hindi word for box and walla is a suffix of the previous word which means ‘doer’ or ‘holder’. So, dhabawalla is, indeed, the carrier of a box. The three or four tiered dhaba is also known as tiffin.
The terms dhabawalla and tiffin carrier are used simultaneously. What does the box contain? A boxed lunch. Yep, one that is provided by your loving mother, grandmother or aunt. Restaurants sometimes supply lunches and use the dhabawalla (tiffin carrier) to deliver the meal to an office or private home.
Back in the sixties, in Bombay, a dhabawalla delivered my meals to me where I worked in the Stock Exchange Building on Dalal Street. Daily, I watched them from my office on the fourth storey of the building, trying to make sense of their system. It was fascinating. The men, I understood, were not literate by any means. But they had a certain organizational skills which allowed for mysterious markings on the boxes, colour coding and grouping. All of this allowed them to deliver the food to their respective clients with astounding accuracy. In the late afternoon, dhabawallas picked up the empty containers and delivered them to the origins.I never knew how they did it but I was excited each day to see my meal arrive and anticipate what might be in it. My food came from a Goan restaurant in Dhobitalao and much as I loved my mother’s cooking, the restaurant food was different enough to tantalize my taste buds. They had a terrific knack for making meat croquettes, potato chops, caldeen and some other goan favourites. These foods that my mother reserved for special occasions, were the restaurant’s day-to-day fare.
One day, I picked up my tiffin from the spot where the dhabawalla left it along with other co-workers who had their meals delivered. I was allowed to eat at my desk since my boss relied on me to cover the phones in the lunch hour. I didn’t mind since I could eat and read my novel. Hardly anyone ever called in that hour since most were likely devouring their own meals. I never ate breakfast in those days therefore, by lunch time, I was famished. I opened the clasp of the tiffin and separated the stacked containers, my mouth watering all the time.
I stared at the contents, my brows knitted together in total surprise – shock even. The top container held two dry looking chapatis, the next one, french beans with a sprinkling of coconut and just enough tumeric to tease the beans. The third container had a watery, greyish liquid with about four mustard seeds and one large cinnamon stick floating in it. I forced myself to look at the last container which held a banana halved to make it fit. I leaned back in my chair, threw my head back and sighed. Then, I proceeded to try each item. I was hungry enough to eat both chapatis. Aftertrying a spoonful of the soup, I decided that I wasn’t hungry after all. The beans – meh! I picked at three of them and they were tasteless. I broke off the blackened pieces of banana and ate the rest. Thank goodness that I had arrived at an exciting point of adventure in my novel. Somerset Maugham’s Magician gripped me with a terror that distracted my thoughts from the horrid lunch I had just consumed.
In the corridor of the building, two men were talking loudly. I recognized Mr. Vora’s loud and heavily accented voice. He evidently spoke better gujarati than english. He was talking to Ravi, the peon.
Mr. Vora: You will never believe what happened to me.
Peon: Sorry sir? What happened?
Mr. Vora: I opened my dhaba and lo and behold. A meal from heaven was inside it.
Peon: Heaven sent you a dhaba?
Mr. Vora: Arre, stupid fellow. Not heaven in the real sense. I don’t know who sent it but it was wonderful (sounds of smacking lips) – It was delicious. I have never tasted anything like it. Oh golly gosh! I am so happy I did not have to eat the stupid diet food my mother sends to me. She is worrying about my weight.
My hair stood on its end and I wanted to go out in the corridor and confront him. But the feeling didn’t last. It occured to me that day after day, Mr. Vora gets to eat bland and yukky food. For once he got a taste of the delicious food I enjoyed every single day.
Incidentally, this error could not be attributed to the dhabawalla who had done the right thing. He had put the tiffins in one spot where employees collected them in the lunch hour. This error was totally the fault of Mr. Vora who picked up the wrong tiffin. Shame on you Mr. Vora but I am happy that you enjoyed my lunch!