06 Dec 2007


Image is everything for the upper class living in the city of Mumbai*.  Part of this image is what they eat and what they wear.  The image-makers in these two cases are the tiffin-wallahs* and the dhobis-wallahs*.  These are the very efficient and hard working people who bring the lunches and do the laundry for businessmen and office workers. 

 Lunch is the biggest meal in Mumbai and it is important that the wife home cook the meal. Typically, the family lives in one of the exclusive neighborhoods of northern Mumbai as much as an hour’s train ride to work.  The “stay at home” wife must purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and supervise the preparation of the meal … a two to four hour task.  It must then be delivered to her husband’s office.  Preparing and getting this meal to her husband is an essential part of her day.  

 After preparation, the tiffin-wallahs take the lunch to the train station.   More home cooked meals are brought in and all are put on the train for the long ride downtown.  At the end of the ride, the lunches are unloaded from the train where another group collects the lunch pails and distributes the still warm food to delivery carts.  Several different methods of delivery to the husband’s work place are used … from cart … to bicycle … to carrying on one’s head.  The final personalized delivery is made by hand directly to her husband.

 There are about 3,500 of these deliverymen who handle over 100,000 lunches each day managing to get them to the correct person and always on time.  This is an amazing feat since few of these workers can read and rely on symbols that specify the destination of each individual lunch canister.


The dhobi-wallahs … the laundry worker organization … is similar to that of the tiffin-wallahs.  In this case, workers go to the homes to deliver clean laundry and to collect dirty laundry.  Transported by train, the dirty laundry arrives at the huge central laundry facility located next to a major train station in the central part of the city.  There are about 4,000 dhobi-wallahs who work here.  They start work before sunup and work into the night.  Pants, shirts, saris, bed sheets, and undergarments are thoroughly cleaned, pressed and folded.  For the most part, the laundry work is a man’s job … as is the lunch delivery operation.  Occasionally, a woman helps out in hanging the clothes to dry but she does not venture down to the washing vats.

 While waiting for the next batch of clothes, there may be time to clean one’s self.  At the end of the day, the clean items … ready for use the next day … are returned to the owners.  Dirty things are picked up at that time and the cycle continues. 

 Thousands of the servant and laborer class of people are gainfully employed in the lunch and the laundry business as they make a unique contribution to the image of the wealthy and influential of Mumbai.


Dhobis-wallahs            DOE-bee–WAHL-ahs

Mumbai                      Moom-BYE

Tiffin-wallahs             TIFF-in-WAHL-ahs




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