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Mumbai's dabawalas: The inside story

October 30, 2007
The true character of any success story is woven in the creative efforts made by people in that enterprise in facing mind-boggling facets of change.

As we all know, the predominant characteristic of change is frequent turbulence. We get its reflection within ourselves. It compels us to scale up our working rhythms for performing our daily tasks within deadlines. Unfortunately such high speed activities lead to oscillating and epileptic living rhythms. Such horrendous 24 x 7 occupation of mental space leaves little space for living.

This shooting script about `change' is baffling. Our limitations stare at us. I think our capacities to enhance competencies to master change are limited. From a common person's perspective one question nags: How do successful people amongst us remain anchored, sane, and earn enough to sustain their families in this wayward process of change?

This poser reminded me of Lao-Tzu's famous adage, "Knowing the constant gives an impartial perspective". This means we must identify the `constants' in this puzzling phenomenon of change. For discerning the `constants' and `variables' it is necessary to study businesses and people behind them, who have achieved durable success year after year.

I had done such a study of contemporary business leaders for Thought Leaders and Exemplary CEOs. The `constant' that stood out was their commitment to living the values they cherish. Anchored in value set, they lay down milestones through uninterrupted, intelligent practice of the crafts they decide to master. They do not engage themselves in playing the game of blaming others in their mental chatter.

Similarly sportsmen, saints, artists, musicians, authors, media anchors, athletes, cartoonists, comedians, etc. practice long and hard to develop perfection in their chosen vocations. All types of achievers sharpen their skills and mindsets to lay new landmarks in their fields of expertise.

When I tell stories of achievers like Verghese Kurien, Sachin Tendulkar, Narayana Murthy, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Amrita Patel, Anu Aga, Raghunath Mashelkar, Dr. Abdul Kalam, in seminars and conferences I address, the response is overwhelming. People tell me how much difference such inspiring stories have made in their lives. They yearn to read about such role models and their stories of success.

This story is about a 115-year old successful business operation. It is carried out by 5000 semi-literate people. It is unfolded here through dialogues between four characters including me:

Raghunath Megde (Raghu) 48, and Gangaram Talekar (Ganga) 55, are the two dabawalas-Tiffin Box Couriers-from Mumbai. Raghu is an arts graduate, whereas Ganga has passed standard eight high school examination. Their upbringing from a village farming community is rustic. They have taken education in the local Marathi medium.

However coarse their `Marathi intoned English' is, it conveys clearly what they want to communicate. They tell their stories passionately. Yet they are not loquacious. As Raghu told me, "Our conversational ability has improved through interaction with English speaking people". Raghu has a dry sense of humour, whereas Ganga is bubbly.

Image:Indian Dabbawalas at Churchgate.
Photographs: Sanjay Sawant

Also read: Mumbai's amazing dabbawalas

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