Sunday, January 31, 2010

The dabbawala and other Mumbai stories

- By Deepa Krishnan

"Why haven't you written about the dabbawalas?", someone asked me recently. "They're such a Mumbai icon!"

Well, if you really want to know, I haven't written about the dabbawalas simply because they've become such a well-worn cliche. I am so irritated by condescending articles that gush "Oh, they're uneducated but they're still a six sigma operation!!".

As if only people with university degrees can run anything of high quality!

I'm quite certain the istriwala who has been coming to our house every week for the last 20 years runs a six sigma operation. He rarely, very rarely, makes mistakes. The guy who delivers our groceries (he comes home every alternate day and takes orders) rarely makes mistakes either. The newspaper delivery is never wrong, nor the milk delivery. The flower-woman delivers the right fresh flowers for daily prayer (different types of flowers for different houses, different lengths, and special flowers for special days). There's a fruit seller who brings bananas to my parents home every other day, and a vegetable seller who brings palak.

Istriwala at work, 7:00 a.m., near Indian Gymkhana, Matunga

Paperwala doing his rounds, near SIES School

All of these services are run by people with no literacy; they each service large numbers of people, and they all work quite well, thank you. Why? Maybe it's history. We have had, for many hundreds of years, tradesmen and artisans and tailors and goldsmiths, all providing custom services to not just nawabs and maharajahs, but also to a large section of middle and upper middle class consumers.

People were born into these specific trades - if your father was a goldsmith, so would you be. Fathers passed on to their sons, not only the necessary skills of the trade, but also their clientele. "Yeh hamara ladka hai", said our istriwala to me some months ago. This is my son. It was a business introduction, a way of ensuring the son's face was imprinted on me, so that when he passed on, the son could take over the business.

The sons of tradesmen all start by following their parents to shops or on their rounds, familiarising themselves not only with the trade, but also the customers. Our family goldsmith, for instance, knows three generations of our family, and we know three generations of theirs. As each generation passes on, the younger ones continue the relationship, offering personalised and trusted services.

But it's not just artisans and tradesmen - you can see custom-services even in the daily bazaars. Come pickling season, shopkeepers set up custom mango slicing operations. "Don't cut it so fine, bhaiyya", you can say to them. "I'd like it more chunky." Buying a pineapple? They'll slice it into nice thin circles so you don't have to bother. How about a pomegranate? Ah, no problem, they'll peel it for you and give you bright red kernels in small pouches. Fresh corn? They'll cut the kernels from the cob and custom-pack it for you. If you're a regular customer, they'll remember what you like and how you like it.

Mango seller, Bhuleshwar. You can taste before buying; and have it cut to your specifications.

Pomegranates at Matunga Market, free peeling service

As you can see, we are quite obviously, a people who understand personalised and high quality service extremely well. In fact, I think Indian consumers are probably the most demanding in the world. We want - no, we insist - on superior service, tailored to our needs, at little or no cost. This of course, is a daunting prospect for anyone supplying anything to the Indian market. But sellers who can understand this mindset and who can tailor their products and services to it, are the ones who will succeed and thrive.

The dabbawallas have, in fact, done exactly that. They provide a service that is designed around their customer's needs, at a price that makes sense. This doesn't make the dabbawalas any less iconic or interesting - but it does set them into a larger context, the context of a city that offers other similar services at really low costs.

Here are the simple economics of the dabbawala story:

Number of dabbawalas: 5,000

Number of dabbas they deliver every day: 200,000

Charges per month: Rs 250-300 per dabba

What you get for 10 rupees a day: Two-way delivery of food (in the morning, hot food is transported from home to office, and in the afternoon the empty dabba is brought back)

Does it make sense?: Yes it does. A thali meal at a restaurant costs at least Rs 35; and the nicer ones cost Rs 100 - Rs 200. So even with the dabbawala's delivery charges, you end up spending much, much less every month if you bring food from home. And you don't get upset tummies. And all your little food taboos are intact - you can eat garlic-free meals, if your religion forbids garlic. Or sugar-free meals, if you're diabetic. Unlike a courier service, you get the same dabbawala every day, a face-to-face personalised service integrated into your daily routine. Before the era of cell phones, dabbawalas passed on messages as well ("Come home early, your aunt from Valsad is here!"). Even today, because it is a familiar trusted daily service, the dabbawala will sometimes deliver cell phones or pens or things that someone has forgotten at home.

And thus the dabbawala's proposition works; it is priced right for the market, but more importantly, it satisfies the customer's requirement for a customised, personalised meal that meets personal, medical, religious and social requirements. It therefore delivers exactly the kind of value that Indian customers want and appreciate. If there is a magic formula for succeeding in the Indian market, surely this is it.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Mumbai on their mind

The three of us got featured on Harmony Magazine (you know, the one Tina Ambani owns) recently. Mom and I enjoyed the photo-shoot at my home. Aishwarya co-operated, but barely :) The article is reproduced below, I thought it was well written.

Mumbai on their mind

A family blog that brings together the past, present and the future

The family that 'blogs' together stays together. You are tempted to rewrite the old proverb when you meet 70 year-old Janaki Krishnan; her daughter, Deepa, 40; and granddaughter Aishwarya, 16. The three share a group blog:

Though it was Deepa who came up with the idea in 2006, Aishwarya and Janaki started contributing a year later. Janaki, a retired teacher, was inspired to write actively when her first article on Mumbai's Koliwada market was published in HT Café, the daily supplement of Hindustan Times.

The blog, in essence, is a paean to Mumbai, featuring little-known streets and monuments: the obscure Jewish synagogue in Masjid Bunder; the vegetable market in Vashi; a tiny attar (perfume) shop in Crawford Market; the knife sellers in Zaveri Bazaar. Many posts related to places are written by Deepa, who organises city tours through her firm Mumbai Magic Tours. Janaki's writings are steeped in nostalgia and interesting details of everyday life: the 'season' of making pickles; remembering her mother on Mothers' Day; oil baths of yore; and finding the perfect banana to match her family's diverse taste. And Aishwarya, who believes her grandmother is her "emergency number", writes about everything from travelling in local trains to taking riding lessons and monsoon in Mumbai. All three often discuss possible subjects for the blog and have inspired more members in their family to write. "My uncle wrote a funny piece about people falling asleep in Mumbai trains and my grand-uncle wrote about a rare flower that bloomed in a terrace garden near his house," says Aishwarya.

Harmony magazine, Nov 09