Mahtab Narsimhan

THE TIFFIN

The man descended the gloomy staircase, carrying her tiffin further away with each step. Anahita had a mad urge to run and snatch it back. She still had a chance. Once the dabbawalla merged into the river of people on the street, there would be no recalling the note. Should she call Anurag instead? But that would mean using the public phone booth and having to endure the questioning looks of the neighbours and vendors who knew her.

Suddenly, she wasn’t sure she had done the right thing. Not sure at all. Blood pounded in her ears and her legs trembled. She had to retrieve the note. This was a huge mistake!

Anahita hurried towards the stairs. A shuffling of feet arrested her steps. Her mother stood by the door, questions written all over her face. Too late. Anahita pushed past her mother and raced to the window just in time to see the dabbawalla turn the corner of their lane and vanish from sight. She closed her eyes, clasped the pendant of Ahura Mazda in her clammy hands, and recited an Ashem Vohu, feeling her mother’s eyes burning holes into her back.

Andheri station seethed with people. In a corner of the platform, a group of men in white dhoti-kurtas and Gandhi caps waded through a sea of tiffins, sorting them at top speed. There was no shade at that end of the station and the sun beat down fiercely, heating up the tiffins, as well as the tempers of the dabbawallas. Sporadic bickering broke out among them.

The leader, Vinayak, distinguished only by a red band around his right arm, shaded his eyes and peered down the length of the platform.

“Where is that replacement of Amit’s?” he said. “He should have been here by now!” He spat out a mouthful of betel-nut juice onto the train tracks, narrowly missing a passerby on the platform. “I hate it when a team member is not on time!”

“He’s new to this route, Vinayak,” one of the men replied. “He may be a bit slower in collecting the tiffins. Plus, you know what the housewives are like when they see a substitute. They will ask ten questions before handing over their tiffins — as if they contain gold.” He rolled his eyes and a couple of dabbawallas laughed.

The plaintive cry of a train’s horn sounded in the distance. The ten a.m. to Churchgate was arriving.

Vinayak cursed under his breath and paced. If that idiot of a substitute was late, he would ruin the timing of so many others. The dabbawallas prided themselves on being punctual. Always. The tiffins had to be delivered by twelve sharp to their customers spread all over Bombay. No one ever went hungry because of a lost or delayed box.

“There he is,” someone shouted. Vinayak saw a battered tiffin carrier sailing towards them at top speed, high above the heads of the throng. Behind them the train chugged into the station. A whiff of unwashed bodies and rusting metal filled the air.

“Come on,” yelled Vinayak. “Move or we’ll all miss the train!”

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