Saturday, January 7, 2012
The Tiffin, written by Mahtab Narsimhan. Dancing Cat Books, 2011. $12.95 ages 12 and up
I take great enjoyment from reading stories of other cultures. In the capable hands of Mahtab Narsimhan I have become acquainted with the remarkable world of the dabbawalla. They are the men whose responsibility it is to pick up tiffins (the small round tin from the front cover) and take them to their customer's workplace. While we often carry our own lunches, businesspeople in India get their noon meals fresh and often warm, from restaurants or from home, delivered directly to their office. The dabbawalla returns for the empty tiffin once the lunch is done. It is a profession of great pride to those who deliver the meals; the system works so well that they can boast only one in six million fails to arrive at its proper place.
But what about that one? The author creates a tale that reads like folklore by introducing us to Kunal, whose young, pregnant unwed mother tries sending a message to the child's father. The note does not arrive, as hers is the only tiffin not delivered.
Twelve years later, we meet Kunal. At his birth, he was given into the care of a friend of his mother's and her husband. Kunal's life in their home and restaurant is filled with fear and hatred. He is teased, mistreated, and finally brutally beaten by his stepfather when he tries to take what he feels is owed for his years of unpaid and gruelling labor. Honest and fleeting, the reader gets the feel for the brutality without having to face an endless barrage of it.
He finds refuge with Vinayak, one of the dabbawallas who has befriended him while picking up tiffins at their restaurant. In his company, Kunal comes to know those who belong to the Dabbawalla Association and he longs to be like them:
"Kunal listened to the story, his eyes not leaving Moray's face. The dabbawallas took their jobs seriously, upholding the tradition and their impeccable track record as a team. Once again something twisted inside him. They were all so close. They even had stories they could recount. They belonged, whereas he had a past he wanted to forget and belonged to no one."
Kunal finally begins to feel accepted and worthy. His need to belong, and his headstrong nature, leads him to use his new friends to help him find his birth mother. The final pages hold surprise and hope.
I cannot finish without telling you that the city of Mumbai is like a strong main character, and integral to the telling. On more than one occasion I could smell the smells, hear the cacaphony of sounds and bake in its oppressive heat. Factual and fictional, this is a riveting tale that enlightens and will capture every reader's attention.
A glossary helps readers with unfamiliar words and with some of the cultural references. It is a starting point for those who want to know more about Mumbai, the dabbawallas and life in India.