Tuesday 3 March 2015


We could, with advantage, do things differently and so it's really important to pay attention when we hear about a different way of arranging the world.  Pay attention! On Saturday night, we were at the annual Film Society Bun Fight.  This started a tuthree years ago when the committee decided to show Babette's Feast a film about the corruption of Calvinist austerity by good home cooking.  Why not, somebody asked, serve food with/at that movie, maybe charge a little more and have some conviviality with our subtitles? And it was so.  Last year we sat down to Like Water For Chocolate a magical-realist confection from Mexico.

This year it was a 2013 film from Bollywood called The Lunchbox [briefly reviewed Grauniad or NYT], which is like 84 Charing Cross Road with a dollop of channa-dal and chapattis - in other words tasty and a little sentimental - my sort of film. It's actually only like 84CCR because the leading actors write each other letters . . . and never meet face to face. We were unavoidably late for the start but there was still some dal and veggie curry and chapattis left to snack on in the dark. The Lunchbox of the title is filled with a lot of food by a young wife-and-mother and mis-delivered to a lonely and widowed office-worker for his tiffin. They develop a relationship, by notes folded in the tiffin-dabba with the chapatti, which is a lot more open and confessional than would be possible in the face-to-face world. So far so Arts Block.

But the infrastructure of the film is supplied by the dabbawallahs a many-to-many network which gathers tiffin-boxes from 200,000 homes in Greater Mumbai and deliver them to 200,000 desks in the business district. It is like FedEx or the postal service and works with a startling level of efficiency and is more-or-less error-free. The boxes are gathered by chaps on bicycles in the residential suburbs in the morning, delivered to the nearest train-station where they are consolidated on the side-walk for destination stations whence they are delivered by hand-truck and bicycle to the correct desk, office, floor, building, street. As the dabbawallas are, many of them, illiterate, there is no paperwork and the coding [R] for origin (the boxes have to come back home in the afternoon) and destination is represented by coloured paint on the box itself.  Here is a slideshow with financial and logistical details. Or as a single graphic.

That is clearly a huge cultural difference from how things are arranged in Ireland. The fact that some entrepreneurial sandwich shops developed a business delivering sambos to the desks of salarymen during the Celtic Tiger Era is not the same thing at all.  That is a centre-to-many distribution model. But the most significant difference is that the structure of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust NMTBST hierarchy is flat.  200,000 tiffins are distributed for US$4 a month by 5000 dabbawallahs who share the proceeds equally. The chap who cycles round Khar West or Andheri festooned with lunch-boxes or the two fellows who schlub a truck loaded with 150 dinners all take home that same as the chief dispatcher outside Nariman Point Station.  Each coordinated team of dabbawallahs acts as a mutual society, chapel and trade-union. Not for nothing are branches of several British trade-unions called chapels. The use of bicycles and hand-carts is part of the philosophy of the NMTBST - these things are better for the planet.  In the Dublin sandwich shop model, you have a millionaire CEO and a lot ham&cheese pilers on the minimum-wage. It doesn't have to be like that.

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