In Mumbai, revelations from routines


The Gateway of India in Mumbai.Mumbai is a city of striking contrasts and extremes, with buildings dating from the days of the British Raj juxtaposed with glittering skyscrapers, traditional markets and bazaars competing with shopping malls and the wealthy housed in mansions next door to sprawling slums that are home to the millions who have poured into the city from the surrounding countryside.

The financial capital of India, it is also the country's busiest port and a dynamic and cosmopolitan city whirling with color and activity.

Organized tours of the city will take visitors to many of the impressive sights, including the imposing Gateway of India on the waterfront adjacent to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Tours also include the incredibly busy Chhatrapati Shivali Rail Terminus (commonly known as Victoria Terminus), the jam-packed Crawford market and the World Heritage-listed Elephanta Caves about six miles offshore to see the amazing carvings there.

Tours of Bollywood, a thriving center for film production, are also popular and easily arranged.

However, two traditional activities in Mumbai are not to be missed. They are not often included on larger tours, but they can be discovered easily by the more independent travelers.

Out near Mahalaxmi Railway station is a huge, open-air laundry where workers called dhobi wallahs toil in the hot sun to clean the clothing of many of Mumbai's residents.

Each day thousands of pounds of soiled articles are delivered. The dhobi wallahs, working in and alongside hundreds of hot water-filled concrete tanks, beat the articles clean before laying them out to dry.

The laundry is separated by color and type, but somehow it is miraculously returned to the correct owners at the end of the day; I was informed that there is rarely a mistake.

Dhobi wallahs in action in Mumbai.The area where the dhobi wallahs work is like a small village where the workers and their families live. Visitors can walk around the area watching the dhobi wallahs in action and speak to them and their families.

The other tradition involves the delivery of lunch boxes to office workers by workers called dabba wallahs.

In their suburban homes, the wives of office workers prepare so-called tiffin boxes (usually containing cooked lunches of rotis, vegetables and dal), which are collected by the army of around 5,000 dabba wallahs who transport them by train to central points — the best known and most easily accessible are at Church Gate and West End stations — where they then sort, repack and deliver the lunches, while still hot, to the correct office.

Interested visitors can watch the dabba wallahs in action at the stations before the tiffin boxes are delivered. The dabba wallahs deliver up to 200,000 boxes each day traveling aboard small trolleys, on bikes or on foot.

Amazingly, given that many of the dabba wallahs cannot read, a code system has been developed based on number and letter combinations. This ensures that the boxes are sent to the correct building, floor and office number — again, mistakes are very rare. This traditional activity is more than 100 years old.

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