Mahtab Narsimhan

THE TIFFIN

“Young memsahib, an empty tiffin box costs ten rupees in the market. With the food, it’s worth maybe fifteen rupees. Do you think I could retire after I steal it?” the man said. “I’m getting late. Do you want your husband to get his lunch or not? That last one’s for him, isn’t it?” He jerked his chin at the tiffin Anahita was still hugging.

Husband. Anahita repeated the alien word to herself silently, savouring its taste on her tongue. She handed over the tiffin with a trembling hand.

“Are you okay?” he said in a softer voice. “You look ill.”

Bile rose in her throat. Anahita glanced behind her furtively. “I’m fine,” she said. “You’re sure this will reach Anurag Parekh? At Mittal Towers, Nariman Point, eleventh floor? You won’t lose it, will you? Because you see he … er … has a weak stomach. He can’t eat any other food. He must get this tiffin.”

She knew she was babbling. The man raised his hand to stop her.

“Young memsahib, this tiffin has reached your husband every day, no? Why should today be any different? Anyway, the address is right here,” he said, tapping the lid of the tiffin, “and it will reach him no matter who delivers it. Besides, I have never lost a box.”

“Shhhh, you don’t have to raise your voice,” said Anahita. “I’m not deaf.” She stole another quick glance behind her.” The hallway was still deserted but she knew it wouldn’t be for much longer. The moment the prayers were finished, her mother would be eavesdropping. She turned back to the dabbawalla and stared at him. “Are you telling me the truth? You’ve never lost a tiffin?”

The dabbawalla dropped his gaze. “Well, just one — a long time ago,” he said. He looked up again. “But I won’t lose yours. Your husband will get the tiffin. He will come home a happy man in the evening. Trust me.”

Anahita took a deep breath. Yes, let him come tonight. Please. He has to! She imagined the look on her mother’s face, the disappointment in her father’s eyes. She couldn’t face it all by herself. She needed Anurag’s support.

The dabbawalla arranged the tiffins in the carrier, chattering away. Anahita watched her precious missive nestle among the others, snug and comfortable. Safe.

He hoisted the carrier onto his head with a grunt. A cloud of foul-smelling body odour wafted her way. Anahita clapped her hand to her mouth and backed away, the urge to vomit overpowering. She took deep breaths and the feeling subsided.

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