In attendance at the British royal wedding last week were two Bombay/Mumbai dabbawalas. Apparently, the Raja of England met the gents on a trip to India a couple of years back, and liked them so much he decided to fly them to jolly England for his nups.
Collectively, these much-lauded ‘lunch-runners’ of Mumbai deliver hot meals in stainless steel containers (dabbas) daily to 175,000 hungry office-workers in India’s business capital. I have no elaborate theory to offer on the cultural significance of the two Bombayites presence at Buckingham, but I do think that this offers a fine opportunity to bandy some errant thoughts about on the question of food, culture and power in Indo-British history.
The institution of dabba delivery supposedly began sometime in the 1890s to service the culinary needs of Britons working in what was rapidly emerging as the commercial capital of the Indian Empire. Initially laboring to protect the tender palates and tummies of Englishmen from the feisty local cuisines and provide what were no doubt bland and beefy victuals, dabbawalas soon enough turned to bringing home-cooked Indian food to office-bound Indians (oftentimes prepared in mass quantities by the working poor like the heroís mother in Kiran Nagarkarís masterpiece Ravan & Eddie).
A solid decade before 1998 when the conservative economic rag Forbes honored the dabbawalas and their negligible margin of error with the highest possible efficiency rating, Salman Rushdie had already immortalized them in his controversial diasporic epic The Satanic Verses. The star muses on ìhis childhood among the fabled lunch-runners of Bombayî from a crashing aeroplane:
The ëcomplex coding systemí from Gibreelís memory forms the secret language of the dabbawalas, unintelligible to the uninitiated. The stuff of cozy nostalgia for the character, and a pithy metaphor in Rushdieís adept hands, these types of coded information networks played into a larger structure of incomprehension that haunted the project of British colonialism in India through and through. This was the ëcolonial terrorí identified by Sara Suleri in her Rhetoric of English India ñ a rumor mill that circulated information almost instantly throughout the streets and bazaars of the subcontinent, leaving the British always a step behind inscrutable, malicious and unreliable ënativesí across the Empire.
The most obvious (and in the case of this particular forum, appropriate) culinary parallel to the dabbawalasí codes is of course the mysterious and seditious act of circulating chapatis from village to village in 1856-7. I would hesitate to ascribe any revolutionary function to the markings on the hot lunches carried through the lanes and gulleys of Mumbai. Nevetheless, there is certainly an affinity in terms of form with the original Chapati Mystery of 1857 and the subsequent full-scale uprising that was met with the harshest of possible retributions, including gruesome executions en masse and the formal foundation of what is arguably historyís most significant colonial empire. What had once been the very stuff of imperial anxiety ñ uncrackable codes in the salad days of cryptography ñ is now the making of a uniquely Indian business-savvy worthy of notice by the Prince of Wales himself. Good enough, even, for an all-expenses paid trip to the gala wedding event of the season.