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Feeding the City

Feeding the City: Work and Food Culture of the Mumbai Dabbawalas

Sara Roncaglia
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Open Book Publishers
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Feeding the City
    Book Description:

    Every day in Mumbai 5,000 dabbawalas (literally translated as "those who carry boxes") distribute a staggering 200,000 home-cooked lunchboxes to the city’s workers and students. Giving employment and status to thousands of largely illiterate villagers from Mumbai's hinterland, this co-operative has been in operation since the late nineteenth century. It provides one of the most efficient delivery networks in the world: only one lunch in six million goes astray. Feeding the City is an ethnographic study of the fascinating inner workings of Mumbai's dabbawalas. Cultural anthropologist Sara Roncaglia explains how they cater to the various dietary requirements of a diverse and increasingly global city, where the preparation and consumption of food is pervaded with religious and cultural significance. Developing the idea of "gastrosemantics" – a language with which to discuss the broader implications of cooking and eating – Roncaglia's study helps us to rethink our relationship to food at a local and global level. The publication of this book is financed by the generous support of interested readers and organisations, who made donations using the crowd-funding website

    eISBN: 978-1-909254-02-2
    Subjects: Anthropology, Business

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Pier Giorgio Solinas
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xiii-xvi)

    This book is an ethnographic analysis of a local workers cooperative in Mumbai: the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTBSCT). This enterprise employs up to 5,000dabbawalas, who have been delivering 200,000 lunch-dabbasdaily to students, office workers and factory workers since the end of the nineteenth century.¹ Adabba, also known as a “tiffin”, is a specially designed circular steel box made up of three separate sections that fit together to form a cylinder of about 20 cm in height. These food containers are commonly used by Mumbaikars (the inhabitants of Mumbai) to carry their lunch, which...

  6. 1. Bombay-Mumbai and the Dabbawalas: Origin and Development of a Parallel Economy
    (pp. 1-36)

    Midday in Mumbai: teeming traffic besieges the city, lines of cars creep forward at a snail’s pace, people walk in the road, buses swerve into their bays for a split second, rickshaws and taxis veer into every tiny space, while placid cows browse amongst all kinds of garbage. Hooting horns and chaos. Lunchtime is coming up for most civil servants, office workers, and school children. Nearly two hundred thousand people are waiting for theirdabbawalas, who arrive promptly with the tiffins they have to deliver.²

    Dabbasmake a long trip every day to reach the people expecting them: a journey...

  7. 2. Dabbawala Ethics in Transition
    (pp. 37-86)

    They may be old or great, rich or poor, but they’re all human beings. We have compassion for all human beings, we regard them with love. We distribute food to everyone we meet. We must help everyone. We protect our neighbours. If you have much, then give to the poor. God also gave life to the poor. Do not set them aside. God will give them something good. Everyone has feelings in their minds. Everyone should earn together and share. Eat together, putting things together, living together.

    — Raghunath Medge

    The tiffin delivery network is not only supported by a...

  8. 3. Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust: The Shaping of Dabbawala Relations
    (pp. 87-118)

    After the initial rudimentary cooperative was set up in 1954, the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust (NMTBSCT) was registered with that name in 1984. The name was developed to include all the elements that characterise the work of thedabbawalas: the city where tiffin delivery is offered; the organisation’s specific role as a distribution network; and its establishment as a charity trust, reflecting its social commitment to sponsoring various non-profit projects.¹

    An executive committee of thirteen permanent members sits at the highest level of the NMTBSCT, and it is responsible for defining and fine-tuning the overalldabbatransport...

  9. Conclusions: Tastes and Cultures
    (pp. 119-154)

    The littledabbasthat travel daily through the crowded streets of Mumbai can be thought of as narrative devices that describe the cultures of the city.² They are also a gauge of the transformations at play in urban food supply and acculturation that have always characterised Mumbai—amasalaof ingredients, flavours and commensality. As ethnographic research has taught so successfully and as Homi K. Bhabha has pointed out, “It is in the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—that the intersubjective and collective experiences of […] or cultural value are negotiated”.³ Thedabba...

  10. Appendix: Theory and Practice for an Ethnography of Diversities
    (pp. 155-180)
  11. Glossary
    (pp. 181-192)
  12. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 193-208)
  13. Index
    (pp. 209-214)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-219)