His teeth are beedi-mottled, but that's done nothing to take away the sparkle in his eyes. Bhasaheb Karvande, 58, has been a dabbawala for 38 years, his son Vikas Bhau Karvande, 32, for nearly two decades.
"But then this is what we have done for generations. My late father too, supplied dabbas," he cackles, taking quick deep breaths on a beedi before stubbing it outside his kholi in Tembepada, Bhandup, "I can get anywhere in Mumbai. The moment you tell me addresses, all I need to do is close my eyes for a second and I can picture the area."
First, starting off in South Mumbai's business district of Bhuleshwar, he has vivid memories of his fathers' stories of those charged five years of the Samyukta Maharashtra struggle. "I must have been waist-high when I began with my father. He'd take me with him to Marine Lines station and wait for our share of 40 dabbas to be given to us by the mukaddam. He'd gotten really bad asthma and would wheeze often so I began accompanying him to help. When we would be waiting to load or unload dabbas, he would talk of the great bomba-bombi (chaos) when strikes ensued. In fact, they would often put their lives at risk to deliver dabbas. Sometimes, the sahebs would have to take them on their own if the situation turned too ugly," he says, but doesn't forget to add, "Bara zhaala Morarjichya naakawar theechun Mumbai ghetli."
This Std VIII dropout began working soon afterwards. He feels rules of disallowing children from working are wrong. "It's not like the government is feeding their family for free," he spits, letting loose some really flavoured expletives from the Maaval region in Pune district he hails from.
This patriarch to a family of five, who live in 10x12 room with a mezzanine, waves his hands and asks the gawkers gathering to leave. "You know, these Mumbaikars are such cheaters. Sometimes, when I would reach the office well in time, I'd be told to take the dabba back, eat it and return it at home. After the women at home had put in so much love into packing home-cooked food, these people would make plans to eat faltu ingrazi food with their colleagues," he remembers and adds, "Of course, we would all wait to isolate such a regular on our route because then we would be able to have a decent meal."
His son, who is listening intently, shoos off the resident rooster who seems eager to join the conversation. "But some of the stuff these people eat is weird. There was a woman who would always get something yucky we thought was doodh-bhaatatli kolambi (milk and rice with prawns). We would give it to dogs and crows outside on the days she gave us her dabba."
The Karvandes have one family they have gotten very close to from the Princess Street. After all, three generations of them have served three of Zoroastrian Katrak family by getting their dabbas, first from Mahim and now Andheri. "Whether it is Diwali, Ganpati or even a crisis at home, they have always helped us out," says the son, pointing to a bookshelf-turned-kitchen shelf, which was handed down. "Asli sheesham haai," he adds, knocking on the flank.
Wondering who's visiting, neighbour and fellow dabbawala Sitaram Babuji Pophale ambles in. The 65-year-old has been a dabbawala for 50 years and admits that he finds moving around with even 20 dabbas tough nowadays. "Remember, when we began, there were first brass and then steel dabbas. I could carry almost 30 in a rack on my head. Now, they have these plastic ones, which are so delicate, and I begin huffing. We should have more old-age benefits," he says, getting rudely interrupted by a BEST bus honking on the road across. If only the city would care. "Is this all that the Marathi manoos deserves? Mumbai tumchi, nee bhandi ghaasa amchi (Keep your Mumbai and come scrub our vessels)."