martes, 29 de mayo de 2007

In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver

MUMBAI, India — Gaurav Bamania, a hedge fund analyst who works in one of the many downtown office towers that now dominate the skyline of India’s financial capital, could easily eat lunch at one of the city’s better restaurants. Instead, Mr. Bamania, 26, follows a practice dating back over a century to the early years of British rule: he has a hot meal, lovingly cooked at home by his grandmother, and delivered to his desk every workday.

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Fawzan Husain for The New York Times

A dabbawalla taking his lunch break after handling thousands of meals. Despite its complexity, the system is known for its precision. More Photos »

In India, where many traditions are being rapidly overturned as a result of globalization, the practice of eating a home-cooked meal for lunch lives on.

To achieve that in this sprawling urban amalgamation of an estimated 25 million people, where long commutes by train and bus are routine, Mumbai residents rely on an intricately organized, labor-intensive operation that puts some automated high-tech systems to shame. It manages to deliver tens of thousands of meals to workplaces all over the city with near-clockwork precision.

At the heart of this unusual network is a chain of delivery men called dabbawallas.

The word comes from tiffin dabba, a colonial reference to a box containing a light meal, and walla, the man who carries. The precision and efficiency of the dabbawallas have been likened to the Internet, where packets identified by unique markers are ferried to their destination by means of a complex network.

“There is a service called FedEx that is similar to ours — but they don’t deliver lunch,” said one dabbawalla, Dhondu Kondaji Chowdhury.

The British introduced the service 125 years ago after the city was flooded by workers from different regions. The dabbawallas made it possible for workers to bridge the distance between work and home and between regional food tastes.

The service has until recently thrived purely on word of mouth. But it is now getting a high-tech lift, as the dabbawallas have joined up with Web service providers. An office worker, with someone lined up at home to cook, can sign up for the service through text messaging or an e-mail message.

Variations of the lunch delivery system have sprung up in the United States, generally in metropolitan areas with large South Asian populations like San Francisco and New York. But these services are comparatively small.

In the urban sprawl of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where going to work means leaving home as early as 7 a.m., long before the woman of the house has started cooking for the day, the dabbawalla system has withstood the onslaught of office cafeterias, neighborhood eateries, multinational food chains and high-end restaurants, where table reservations are hard to come by. The dabbawallas even deliver in the pouring rain or during political strife. And business is still growing, at a steady rate of 5 percent to 10 percent a year.

The service is at once simple and complex. A network of wallas picks up the boxes from customers’ homes or from people who cook lunches to order, then delivers the meals to a local railway station. The boxes are hand-sorted for delivery to different stations in central Mumbai, and then re-sorted and carried to their destinations. After lunch, the service reverses, and the empty boxes are delivered back home.

The secret of the system is in the colored codes painted on the side of the boxes, which tell the dabbawallas where the food comes from and which railway stations it must pass through on its way to a specific office in a specific building in downtown Mumbai.

“We don’t know how we could survive without this system,” said Vrinda Chiplunkar, who prepares daily lunches of lentils, vegetables, rice, chapatis and salad for her husband, Chandrashekhar Chiplunkar, who runs the foreign exchange division of Oman International Bank. “The old fashioned, inexpensive dabbawalla system is a rare survivor in this fast-paced world.”

The Chiplunkars are loyal customers of 64-year-old Mr. Chowdhury. Like many fellow dabbawallas, Mr. Chowdhury is a migrant from a rural village in the region, still illiterate but having learned on the job to read the numbers and letters painted on the lunch boxes and to sign his name to customer receipts.

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