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Feeding the City

Sara Roncaglia


Pier Giorgio Solinas

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1This book is about the anthropology of the city or, more accurately, anthropology in the city, based on the extensive map of one of the many systems of circulation: food. Food that is carried, delivered and returned from the kitchen to the consumer. The Mumbai dabbawalas are food deliverymen that connect homes and workplaces—messenger boys, urban servants who are fast and precise, trustworthy and discreet, clean and punctual. Service, certainly, but service immersed in the teeming ocean of urban modernity. Each day they move along the rail network; their work thus entails a journey and this journey is repeated on a daily basis, with long itineraries cadenced by the sequence of customer addresses where they must deliver without fail the tightly sealed tin that each wife has prepared and handed to them early in the morning, to be taken to a husband working in an office, on a construction site, in a shop, many kilometres away.

2A mild sense of duty, of a delicate, humble and scrupulous mission, interwoven with a generous readiness to work for the good of the customer: these are the recurring motifs of work that seem to make the dabbawalas happy. They bring together the beneficiary and the benefactor (and is this not pure Jajmani philosophy?) in a shared satisfaction, yet seem to expand unexpectedly in the heart of frenzied modernisation. Food is a message, transmitted through nutrition: more than in other contexts, its energetic communication is released socially and physically in space. Born out of tender, loving care, it bridges the distance between one individual and another, passing the expanses desecrated by traffic, the mingling of people and vehicles, environmental impurities of exhaust gases, and inclement weather.

3The custom of ordering takeaway food, to be delivered from the restaurant to the consumer’s house, is far more widespread in the western world, although it is also to be found in Indian metropolises. This is a formula that every now and again replaces home-cooked food prepared in the family kitchen, like “going out to eat” without actually going out, a small exception to domestic routine. The dabbawala service is just the opposite or the reverse: it conjures up the feeling of home for those away from home. Each day it reinforces ties between the family and the workplace so that the domestic intimacy enclosed in the tiffin can emerge during a lunch break in the office, on a building site, in a factory. In this respect, it is quite similar to the custom once frequent in rural society whereby all kinds of farmworkers were ensured a midday meal.

4Sara Roncaglia’s description of the Mumbaite system reveals that, in contrast with more sophisticated market cultures, the order of affections and food containers maintains its tenacious hierarchy of precedence, which is as much about ethics as it is about taste and aesthetics. This is an order that establishes the indissolubility of the nutritional bond between family and work, men and women, etiquette and bodily ritual, and community membership. I believe that this is where the source of an investigative critique can be perceived, suggesting opportunities for research that will sound the innermost depths of the emergence or development of strongly cultural new urban trades. Such trades can take root deep in the cultural sensitivity of a society swarming with ethnic and religious contacts, innervated with open technologies and abysmal poverty, imbued with deep malaise and rocked by the tremors of social distinction. The Mumbai dabbawalas are not just a trade corporation but also a structured community, with dense social identity and cohesive recognition ties. The network of responsibilities, functions and organisational complementarity that forms the setting for the work of something like five thousand meal delivery men does not serve only to ensure the best technical standard for the service system. It could be likened to a modern guild, where work and social identity, devotion and economic gain, even the sharing of beliefs and religious works, as well as mutual aid, are part of this business culture.

5Similarly, and from the same root, they produce and administer a symbolic substance without which the very existence of services would be compromised, or at least altered, in that implication of oriental charitas (and quite different from Christian charity) in which the welfare of the customer and the service provider are identified. This concept leads to a reflection on the comparison between the economic principles that distinguish different cultures: Italian, of British origins (slowly assimilated in Latin regions), and Hindu, or more broadly southern Asian. In the first case, it is the meeting of interests (or egotisms) to drive the motor of exchange and ultimately to fuel market solidarity on the basis of a useful cross-calculation: a concordance of convenience. In the second case, which extols trade and links the good to the useful, opportunities to achieve personal benefit is seen (or is represented) as an offering for the benefit of others: the offering of oneself or simply an offer to accord with the customer’s contentment. In the most intense versions of devotion, indicated in traces of tradition, of dharma, this projective orientation achieves forms with greater signs of voluntary dependency. There is no need to stress that in this economic ethic the rhetoric of selflessness (of an uplifting mission) assumes the role of an ideology of social status and easily becomes an image—something that approaches advertising, the self-satisfied glorification of the corporate self, generous, benevolent, humble, and even joyfully submissive.

6A fine, tenuous but persistent web enfolds the ramifications of a city that stretches endlessly, enfolds it with an artful ballet of deliveries, cadenced in minutely signed identification symbols (the dabbawala alphabet, writes the author: a system of distinctive symbols for groups and individual carriers, also designating places for sorting, delivery and destination). This sort of encrypted language, similar to an elementary information system that combines space and people, actually accompanies the daily weaving of the impalpable web of clientele and servers. Filaments of paths, competition, commodification: no less than other utilitarian-type exchanges, here the portions of comfort (perhaps consolation or affection) that the tiffin contains in its sealed interior, incorporate the insuppressible quality of the contents.

7In the final part of her book, Roncaglia gives an overall (and wideranging) key for interpretation: gifts and merchandise move hand in hand in this system. Perhaps they even fuse, complement each other. In the wake of Godbout, the scenario transcends the cold mechanics of efficiency, profitability and monetisation: the ultimate utility of the cycle of patrons, services and remunerations does not drain away in the production or reproduction of material advantages, but in the creation of community ties. Compared to this encompassing aim, dabbawala work appears as a “business activity incorporated in a moral perspective”. In general, this opinion can be accepted, provided that the commitment does not preclude further steps, which may be even more unpredictable and riskier, and may lead to the products of this moral economy flowing effectively into other, uncontrollable market circuits.


Siena, 3 March 2012


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