Ode to Mannabai … who brought hot lunches to me at school.


It had rained continuously for two days in Mumbai, casting a wet spell over everything in that city.  This was not uncommon during the monsoons which last from June to September in India.  Before they hit the streets, one can smell their advent.  At first it is a lingering promise in the air… the anticipation of moisture drenching the parched, waiting earth.  As the first  monsoon showers soak into the ground, they release a very primeval, earthy, sensual scent of wet clay stirring up unexplained feelings of wanting and anticipation of things exciting.  This romance later gives way to stagnant water collecting in ditches, flooded streets due to inadequate drainage and a steady drumbeat of rain on rooftops.

On this typical monsoon day, the doorbell rings and it is Mannabai, the woman who collects hot, home-made lunches from homes and delivers them in a tiffin box to children in our school, in time for lunch. She provided this service even on days of severe weather like today.  Because of the physically demanding nature of the work, you rarely see a woman in this trade which is male-dominated, but the few meager rupees she earned made a real difference in her life.

She was very short with strong bowed legs and a lean, sinewy body.  Fair-complexioned, she had deep lines etched into her face and used to pull her sparse white hair back severely into a golf ball sized knot at the nape.   Her other signature features were her large, betel-nut stained teeth and large ear lobes, torn and weighed down with years of wearing heavy silver earrings. Her head always shook slightly in an uncontrolled fashion and I never knew how old she was…probably too old in my young mind.

Today, she is thoroughly drenched to the skin despite her yellow, rubber raincoat.   She would show up at the door of our flat in Mumbai on week days at 10:30 am, leaning heavily on our doorbell thus causing the “Big Ben” chimes to clang over and over, until my mother in total exasperation would yank open the door with the same response.  “Aarey!  Why so much rushing?  You know I’m getting the children’s lunch ready!”   She would simply stare at my mother with one bulging, cloudy eye while the other one would either wander around or lazily lounge off to one side.  This scenario was re-enacted flawlessly every time, with the actors seamlessly taking their cues from each other.

My mother would then flee to the kitchen, to put the finishing touches to the lunch before packing it in the tiffin box.  The tiffin box was a cylindrical container made of aluminum and heavily insulated to keep food hot so you could enjoy a hot lunch away from home, whether at work or school.   Four small, round, stainless-steel containers of freshly cooked hot food, stacked on top of each other would be lowered into the cavern of the container and then the hinged lid would be snapped shut with a latch.

Without a word, Mannabai picks up the lunch box and a cloth, tote bag which holds plates and utensils which my mother hands to her.  She places these in a wicker basket, 3 feet wide by 18 inches high in which there are other boxes to be delivered.  She covers them with a large oil cloth to keep out the rain.  She winds a length of old cloth into a tight, round coil, places it on the crown of her head and sinking on her haunches, she lifts the basket, straightens up and balances it on top of the coiled pad and walks out, barefoot, into the downpour and on to our school.

En route, she picks up a few more boxes and continues her trudge on the wet roads, sometimes wading through dirty, accumulated water.  She toils, a small figure, with a huge basket balanced on her head, steadily walking up the stone bridge which leads over and down towards our school.    Once she enters the large, school lunch shed with wooden tables and benches, she shakes off the water like a duck, sets out our placemats, plates, spoons, forks and waits patiently till the children stream in for lunch.  If any of my friends rushed through their lunch and stood behind me egging me on to finish soon, she would give them a smack on their hand and reprimand them for rushing me.

Once we finish eating, we help her to load everything back into the container and the tote bag.  She walks around and collects the other boxes she is responsible for, loads the basket, spreads out the oil cloth and once again steps out into the rain to return the boxes. She then walks to her own abode, with the wet, empty basket on her head.







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