Hands that Feed

Umme Salma Saifee and Aparna Bhardwaj explore the lives of dabbawalis of Mumbai

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

Mumbai doesn't have time. The rush to go from one place to the other, work, earn and hustle, doesn’t give many the opportunity to indulge in a delicious, slow, home-cooked meal, except on rare weekends. 
Over the last few years, dabbawalis, who prop up stalls at lunchtime at different pockets across the city, have stepped in to save office-goers from an endless litany of vada/samosa/misal pav lunches. They bring food cooked from home, and serve it up fresh and hot. These women remind people of homes, and serve love on a plate of warm daal-bhaat. These are their stories. 

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“Previously I was working as a cook. And even before that, I was working as an accountant at a construction site in Satara. Then the work there got done, and there were no good jobs coming, so I started cooking. And people enjoyed my cooking. I’ve been here for a year and a half, and its good. I am thankful for all the love I get, I love cooking too. We (her other associate Soma) are planning to open another stall not far from here. Near the next signal.”
- Supriya Jadhav 
Food Stall in Dadar Market

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“I worked in a women’s NGO not far from here. After the first lockdown, they had to let me go. I didn’t know what to do. Along with two of my other colleagues who also lost their jobs, I had a regular place where we used to have home-cooked lunch. We decided to come together and do something similar. The pandemic changed the course of my life. But I’m happy our business took off.” 
Baby Sonvani
Food selling stall near Lower Parel

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“I have been cooking for seventeen years now. This business of mine helped me send my daughter and son to a college. My son is doing hotel management, and my daughter is a civil engineer. They used to help me earlier, buying vegetables, peeling, chopping. But I didn’t want the same future for them as well. This is hard-earned money, no doubt. But they had potential for much more. I’m happy for the way their hard-work paid off.” 
- Swati Malt
Food Stall in Prabhadevi 

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“Today is non-veg day, hence the rush you’re seeing. My son Shubham is also studying media like you. It was his idea to take contact numbers of all our regular customers, so we made a, what is it called? Yes, Whatsapp group with all of them. Selling my food became much easier then. Even during the pandemic, we made food deliveries and my business stayed afloat.”
- Bhavika Gavande
Food Stall near Lower Parel

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Photographs by Aparna Bharadwaj