When I came across a news item about a school requesting parents not to send lunch ordered via delivery apps, I was transported to my school days and my own romance with the lunch box.
One of the highlights of my school days was, “What’s in my lunch box?”
Well, I did carry my books too but I prioritised the “tiffin” box over all else though I never delved into its history. The story goes that during British rule, Englishmen adjusting to the extreme heat of the subcontinent often skipped a full meal at lunch, preferring to gulp “tiff”, a popular diluted liquor. From this was coined “tiffin”, a term for all meals and snacks consumed between breakfast and lunch.
As early as the 1890s, tiffin boxes were used to cater to the workforce in Mumbai. A man named Mahadeo Havaji Bachche made his own lunch delivery service, employing 100 men to deliver lunches packed in tiffin boxes from home kitchens to workers in different parts of the city. Bachche’s system later became one of Harvard’s biggest case studies.
Writer Madhulika Dash believes that tiffin carriers were much older. In one of her articles, she quotes a story from the Jataka tales that could go to show that the invention of tiffin boxes dated back to a much ancient period and was born from a traveller’s necessity. One tale narrates how a merchant after having sattu from his bag had left it open when a snake takes refuge in it.
Home in a small box
Coming back to my love for tiffin boxes, my mother never gave me global cuisine and the fares that she packed for us were quite pedestrian by today’s standards. Yet, there was this mesmerising aspect in carrying one’s own box and dipping into another’s box for that added taste. We vied with one another not only in the shape of the container but also took pride in our respective mom’s preparations. When someone took a second helping, we preened and insisted that our mother does an encore. We did have our occasional samosas and chais, but that was over and above our idlis, dosas, chappatis and mixed rice varieties. Today, my shared lunch partners continue to be my friends after 30 odd years, for we bonded over well… the lunch box.
Those were the days when cash doled out by way of pocket money was limited, to say the least. We learnt to enjoy the treats that were quite few and far between and did justice to our boxes. We empathised with our mother for packing our boxes rain or shine.
My memory of lunch boxes are so sharp that I even remember the lunch that I had with me on the day I met with an accident. Running alongside the bus to be ahead of the crowd, my white canvas shoes slid and down I went, my right hand precariously close to the rear wheel of the bus. Screaming on-lookers and the shaken bus driver managed to extricate me but alas the metal box of yesteryears that we carried books in was wedged to my hands.
Bleeding and sobbing, I was dropped home by my sisters, while the bus waited for them, and my dad managed to break open the box. And within the aluminium box used to carry my books was another aluminium one with somewhat misshapen idlis thanks to their head-on collision with the bus tyre. Hence, to me, homemade food packed in a box is not just a meal but a part of my memory.
I also remember being blackmailed to hand over my box to a police inspector’s daughter to prevent myself from being ‘arrested’. My older sister and her friend had to come to my aid to save themselves from everyday tears. There were days when a few of us surreptitiously dug into our boxes during class, for we couldn’t wait to eat our favourite food. Mother’s cooking is not just about cooking or mundane chores. It’s more of an emotion. Mixed with love and care, the fare that she cooked and packed in a box has a heady taste of its own. In a nutshell, it carries home in a small box.
Cooking for family
Later, I took on the role of a wife. Living in distant Lucknow from the Hyderabad that I grew up in, neighbours were aghast that there were no idlis planned for the day. “Bhabhi, what will Bhaiyya eat?” was the question I often had to hear. ‘Madrasis’ meant idlis and only idlis. Weeks went by without me making batter for the idlis, as I tried my hand at various parathas and kurmas. I had to deal with unhappy neighbours who were astounded that I made similar fares as them. And then, we drew up a plan. I introduced them to a variety of ‘mixed rice’ dishes besides upmas and they sent by plates of piping hot parathas and pooris.
I think strong genes always help; in my case, my children too forgot record books, tests, notebooks, homework and class work but never their lunch box!
Years went by and I became a working mother moving away from Lucknow. Unlike me, my children hated idlis. But then, a working parent knows that one of the easiest to make is the very same idlis. I entered into an agreement with my children. Mondays were designated idli days, for nothing is worse than dragging oneself off to work on Monday mornings. To compensate, Tuesdays were poori and potato day. The occasional snacks became a little more regular. Samosas made way for pizza and my son was a happier soul with his slice of pizza. My firstborn liked her ‘healthy snacks’, not being one to indulge in a lot of fast food. There was a time when I used to leave little notes in their lunch boxes and now live with the regret that I could have made it a regular habit.
Visiting her ailing paati recently, my married daughter cried profusely for the lady who cooked her favourite coconut rice and never let her go to college without packed lunch. She remembered the times when the septuagenarian used to drag herself from bed afraid that her granddaughter would not find time to visit the crowded canteen in between classes and would skip lunch.
Thomas Fuller couldn’t have put it better when he said memories were leftovers in their less visible form, stored in the refrigerator of the mind and the cupboard of the heart.
My tiffin boxes and the ones that I packed for my children fall well within Fuller’s quote.
Chandrika R Krishnan is a freelance writer and soft skills facilitator based in Bengaluru.