Mahtab Narsimhan

THE TIFFIN

The shrill doorbell jerked her out of her reverie.

“Young memsahib, are the tiffins ready?” a man called out. She heard every word clearly through the thin wooden door of their flat.

Anahita folded the note with trembling hands, put it into a bit of plastic, and tucked it between two warm chapatis in the first of the tiffin’s three compartments. The other two had already been filled; one with dal and the other with spicy cauliflower-potatoes. She slid the tiffin into its cylindrical aluminium case carefully, and snapped the clasp to lock it.

“Coming,” she called out. She grabbed three more tiffins from the kitchen counter and hurried to the door with her heavy load. Her mother was praying in the living room, swaying from side to side as she recited the words softly. She glanced up as Anahita passed by, then frowned and waved her on, her lips continuing to move in prayer.

“I’m leaving,” the nasal voice continued. “The trains don’t wait for anyone.”

“Coming,” said Anahita, louder this time, stoking her anger. If she was angry enough, there would be no room for the fear that gripped her heart.

Anahita placed the tiffins on the floor and flung open the door, ready to give the dabbawalla an earful. A scrawny vulture of a man stood there, pulling at his beaked nose.

“Who are you? Where is Amit?”

The sweaty dabbawalla wiped his face with a filthy red rag, flicked off his Gandhi cap, slapped it against his thigh, and set it back on his head at a jaunty angle.

“Amit is sick. I am his substitute and almost late,” he said. He had the air of a man who had repeated his story many times already. He held out a grimy hand for the tiffins.

Anahita passed them over — all except one, which she clutched to her chest. This wasn’t just food, it was her future. And she was about to hand it over to a stranger. Of all days, why did her regular dabbawalla have to be sick today? Was this a sign?

“How do I know you won’t run away with my tiffins?” she whispered, struggling to keep her voice steady.

The man sighed and stepped aside. Behind him on the landing lit by the harsh white of a tube light, a long rectangular wooden carrier cradled fifteen tiffins. Anahita glanced at the familiar aluminum cases with colourful letters and numbers on their lids, some in so shaky a hand it seemed as if a person with fever had painted them.

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