The Lunchbox

In Mumbai thousands of workers receive their noontime lunch by deliverymen, known as dabbawalas, who shuttle stacked metal cans from a food preparer’s home to an office worker, and back again using an elaborate, color-coded system. The odds of delivering a lunchbox to a person for whom it was not intended are said to be one in a million. It happens in the Lunchbox.

The meal is prepared by a lonely housewife, Ila, who is trying to revive her marriage by preparing exotic recipes for her husband. The meals are inadvertently delivered to an equally lonely office worker, Saajan, whose wife has recently died. Ila’s husband never says a word about the lunches. So she puts a little note in his lunchbox one day to figure out what is happening.

Saajan receives the note and responds in kind. They begin a daily correspondence, not by way of texting, emailing, Skyping but by the fine art of writing letters, albeit short in the beginning, but longer as their notes become increasingly personal. In a sense, they join a long and notable group of letter writing friends.

Gradually Ila and Saajan disclose more of their life, their regrets, hopes, and their struggles to get by. They wanted to meet at a café, where Ila goes, waits for Saajan who is there all the time, but is too shy to introduce himself.

After viewing the film, I wanted to learn more about the Mumbai delivery service. In an age of Fed Ex, UPS, etc, it seems like throwback to the Pony Express system. I learn there are 5,000 or so dabbawalas in the teaming city of Mumbai, said to be the world’s fourth most populous. . They deliver, 130,000 lunchboxes throughout a vast city that entails carrying a large pallet full of lunch packs to and fro a home to an office, 260,000 transactions, six days a week, 52 weeks a year minus holidays.

Mistaken deliveries are virtually unknown. How do the dabbawalas accomplish this feat? An article in the Harvard Business Journal (November 2012) reports an investigation of how the service seems to work almost to perfection. In a word, it appears to be due a beautifully organized system or management, training, adherence to rigorous standards and a strong sense of belonging to the members of their group.

The article concludes: “And that’s a lesson managers of all enterprises should take to heart.”