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The Tiffin

by Mahtab Narsimhan

In the context of children’s literature, the term “other worlds” often connotes places that are purely imaginary and only reachable by an enchanted cabinet or peculiarly numbered train platform. But Toronto-based, Silver Birch Award–winning author Mahtab Narsimhan (the Tara Trilogy) introduces children to the “other world” of the dabbawallas of her native Mumbai. Despite being very real and accessible by traditional modes of transport, this world will be just as awe-inspiring for North American young people as any fantasy realm could hope to be.

Unlike North American workers who usually bring lunch from home or eat out, thousands of Indian businesspeople use the dabbawalla delivery service to receive homemade or restaurant meals. Dabbawallas pick up tiffins (circular metal containers) filled with hot food in the morning, deliver them, and return the empty tiffins after lunch. The amazing part of this system is that only one in six million tiffins fails to reach its intended destination. Narsimhan takes this aspect of Indian culture and extends it beyond a stimulating bit of trivia by spinning an intriguing “what if?” scenario to tell the story of a one-in-six-million mistake.

The novel opens in 1982 with a pregnant unwed teen sending a desperate note in her boyfriend’s tiffin.  Living with a strict mother and having no access to a private telephone, she relies on the dabbawallas’ stellar record of accuracy to safely deliver the message that she is with child. Sadly, this is the tiffin that, despite the incredible odds, never reaches its destination.

The novel jumps forward 12 years to reveal that the girl’s child, Kunal, is now living with an abusive foster father and working 10-hour shifts in a dilapidated café. With the threat of physical violence looming, and the mystery of his parentage constantly plaguing him, Kunal decides to run away. He is taken in by a kindly dabbawalla who unwittingly gives Kunal the chance to use the tiffins to find his mother.

The story’s folk tale feel is undeniable, given the integral role of fate and chance in the plot and the central theme of a child’s desire to overcome horrible circumstances to be united with a loved one. An omniscient narrator uses distant, sometimes formal language that is surprisingly readable and immersive. Sentences such as, “The footsteps reached the top of the stairs. It could be no other than Sethji,” may seem awkward and stiff, but help in creating a narrative that feels like it is rooted in an ancient tale.

After finding refuge with the dabba­walla, Kunal gets the opportunity to send out notes in random tiffins, hoping one will reach his birth mother. Surprisingly, he acquires information after sending out just a few hundred notes. Would Kunal’s plan have worked in the real world, given the number of tiffins that are delivered each day? Probably not. But Narsimhan skews her story almost imperceptibly away from realism, allowing the reader to suspend disbelief and become involved in the desperation of Kunal’s quest.               

Very real, however, are the stifling, oppressive odours of India’s busy streets. Narsimhan introduces every new location with an effectively blunt description of its assault on the nostrils. Andheri Station smells like “rancid oil and burnt milk,” while the conditions on the train are just as unpleasant: “The compartment was stuffed to capacity, and the stench was overpowering. Kunal identified Dabur Amla hair oil, a sickeningly sweet perfume, and rotting fish. The rest of the smells were indistinguishable but just as bad.”

Narsimhan also realistically portrays the violence and hardship that Kunal experiences as a child labourer. He is brutally beaten by his foster father, verbally assaulted by his co-workers, and unable to shake the constant “ogling” of a leering male cook. But Narsimhan, a master of conveying horrific circumstances in honest, accessible language, does not dwell on unpleasant details. The descriptions are short, fleeting, and appropriate for a middle-grade audience.

Many Canadian children will find Kunal’s precarious life circumstances, the smells of India, and the entire tiffin delivery industry unfamiliar. Narsimhan helps readers by including a comprehensive glossary defining more than 50 Hindi words and Indian cultural references. The captivating narrative will likely spur kids to dig deeper into the factual world behind the story. A trip to the library (or at the very least, to the Internet) will be a useful supplement for young people.

Melding the fantastically factual with fiction, Narsimhan sheds light on a relatively unknown part of Mumbai life while simultaneously creating a compelling quest that reads like a classic folk tale. Forgive the groan-inducing wordplay, but a novel this original is one in six million.