Dabbawallas and Tiffin Tins

Among the effluvia engendered by Britain’s Prince Charles’ marriage in 2005 to Camilla Parker-Bowles was this tidbit, from the BBC:

Two of the famous lunch-box, or tiffin, carriers from the Indian city of Mumbai are on their way to London to attend Prince Charles’ wedding on Saturday.

The honored men belong to a group, virtually all male, which delivers 175,000 home-cooked lunches, daily, to suburban workers in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India.

Image of a Lunch in a Tiffin TinOperating much like a postal system, the men, called ‘dabbawallas’ or ‘tiffinwallas’, collect lunches (‘tiffin’) from the homes where they’re cooked, transporting them on foot or by bicycle or by handcart and by train until they are delivered to individual offices.

Image of a Bicycle Loaded with Tiffin TinsThe entire operation takes a whole day. Tins are collected at 9 AM, put on the trains by 10:30 and delivered to offices at 12:30. The empties are collected at 1:30 and returned to homes by late afternoon.

Image of Dabbawallahs Sorting Tiffin TinsA total of four dabbawallas handle each individual tiffin on each run. The first collects the tiffin tin from the home. A second sorts the tins before they are placed in bins on a train. A third sorts the tins after they leave the train, and the fourth delivers the tiffin tin to the office.

Image of Tiffin Tin CodingThis enterprising workforce, 5,000 strong, is semi-literate; the tins are marked with symbols and colors which code their destinations. Each carries an origination symbol, a symbol for the destination station and one for the building where it’s finally delivered. The system is so precise that the error rate in just one in two months – or one in 16 million trips.

The dabbawallas have lots of experience to build on — the company has existed for well over 100 years, ever since British colonial times.

Why don’t the office workers carry their own lunches? A commenter named Karuna answers, writing on a business forum:

This Dabba is quite big and crude Alumininum container inside which the tiffin carrier is kept. One thing it is too big. and looks too crude and unsophisticated for a decent office-goer carry to with himself. The harried office-goer would hardly like to carry it with himself on his way back. More over bombay trains do not have space for commuters themselves. How can these big containers be accommodated during rush hour traffic?

I think there’s a tiffin in Allium’s future. No dabbawallas, though — he’s going to have to provide his own transport.

Image credits, all from flickr:

Tiffin lunch from Chris Brun
Bicycle from lheisinger
Sorting also from lheisinger
Tiffin codes from etm21


Ike Taiga

Image of A Mountain Painted by Ike TaigaFor the past month or so, Allium and I have been traveling regularly to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to re-visit the Ike Taiga exhibit. Taiga and his wife, Tokuyama Gyokuran, lived allegedly “bohemian” lives as artists in 18th century Japan. A single visit was not enough; the gallery is huge, and the sheer quantity of the surviving works of these two is overwhelming.

Because all of these works — done mostly on paper, and mounted on silk — are extremely fragile, they are rotated in and out of the exhibition. Subsequent visits have taken on the nature of a treasure hunt while we identify the new items and recall those removed.

Allium has lived in Japan, and has more than a passing acquaintance with the culture of the country, but my own formal cultural education (such as it is) has been largely euro-centric, and my own inclinations are far more literary than art-driven. I’ve been astonished and delighted by this extensive exposure to a world where ‘words’ are themselves visual — where text is a crucial part of the visual experience. Kanji — the ‘text’ — is completely integrated with representational paintings here, and sometimes is, entirely, the ‘painting’.

Image of the Moon and a Cottage Painted by Ike TaigaAllium interprets some kanji, but I can only experience these disciplined and graceful figures visually. I’ve been intrigued to see how much more this kind of exhibit demands of me; really seeing requires attending more precisely than I must when viewing the types of art I more typically observe. I’ve had to slow my pace considerably in order to fully appreciate these works. Seeing, in this case, has not been intuitive.

As was common, both Taiga and Gyokuran painted in response to Chinese texts. My favorite piece is an album of minuscule paintings inspired by the Chinese poet Li Yu (1611-1680). One scene depicts a pavilion, a flowing river, and crosshatching paths down a hillside. The relevant poem is translated as:

My mountain window show[s] all four sides
with perfect clarity
Green fields and verdant paddies
all fall right
before my view
Elbow on desk I supervise the
farmers to the utmost!
And never does it interfere with
the job of reading books.

(“Middle-management” Allium remarked, amused.) (Not so much the last two lines, though, I think.) We are, as ever, at the mercy of the translator here, but you get the gist. No translator is necessary to enter Taiga’s illustration, which is at once sparing and detailed — and wholly evocative.

Unless you take the tour, or are an inveterate reader of the curator’s notes, you may not realize that Taiga sometimes painted using only his fingers. Using the interior curve of an overgrown fingernail as an inkwell, Taiga dipped the fingers of his other hand into the ink and drew using only his digit. To call this ‘finger-painting’ is terribly wrong, conjuring, as it does, the slop and chaos of the modern kindergarten; what Taiga does is nothing short of astonishing, and involves subtleties that are difficult to imagine without actually seeing them.

On a recent visit, a set of screens covered with Taiga’s journal notes was newly installed. Pages of Taiga’s kanji were mounted on the screen — calligraphic scribbles and quick sketches. Allium thought he saw something odd, and pointed out a early page that appeared to be a primitive sketch for a larger painting of Mount Asuma, done much later, in a different display on another wall. That’s treasure-hunting!

Inevitably, we noted some universal human experiences recorded among the more esoteric explorations. On a farm many years ago, Allium and I would hear a whippoorwill calling through the night. Allium understood the underlying message and immortalized it ever after in the cry “My tree! My tree!”. Apparently, neither Chinese poets nor Japanese artists have escaped the territorial expressions of our avian friends. Taiga includes this selection, by Jin Changxu, in his Book of Tang Poetry in Five Calligraphic Styles:

‘Poem of Spring Sadness’

Please, stir up the yellow warblers
So they won’t keep warbling in the trees!
So many times they wake my from my dreams,
Preventing me from traveling to Liaoxi!

A few parts of the exhibit seem surprisingly contemporary to me. A set of screens, filled only with enormous kanji, for instance, that lack, in every way, the subtlety and creativity of most of Taiga’s work. “Hmmm,” I thought. “An eighteenth-century version of a lazy modernist effort.” Perhaps it was just another (and mercifully brief) avant garde moment for Taiga — or does that prove my point?

Image of an Orchid Painted by Tokuyama GyokuranGyokuran’s work is not without interest, but it is less complex. It’s noteworthy that few women were artists, and undoubtedly her inclusion has to do with this, as well as with her association with Taiga. She seems less experimental, and her work more predictable, but some of her orchids are lovely and capture the essence of the plant in just a few well-described lines.

Unfortunately, none of the illustrations shown here (taken from the PMA website) suggest the enormous variation in style and theme demonstrated by Taiga throughout the installation. It’s open only through July 22, 2007, at which point everything goes back to Japan. Go, if you can possibly manage it.


Sweet Dreams

Image of a Bed with Branch-Like Posts

This breathtakingly beautiful tree bed is handmade by a woman named Shawn Lovell, a metalworker who lives in Oakland, California. She makes other things as well, but this is, to my mind, perfection. I originally saw this photo on the blog Reading Writing Living, and tracked it down with a few minutes’ sleuthing on the Internet. Not for the first time, I’m regretting living 3,000 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Lovell’s bed may owe something to this one, which belongs to Max of Where The Wild Things Are:

Image of Max’s Bed from Where the Wild Things Are

but this adult, at least, is still dreaming of the verdant walls of the Pope’s bedroom. Could there be a better furnishing than this one for that exquisite chamber?

Though our own bedroom is furnished more conventionally, Allium and I own a candelabrum that might be at home either in Lovell’s studio or in Max’s bedroom:

Image of a Candelabrum with Branch-Like Arms

Either the candelabrum or its maker is, or was, named ‘Smaug’; it’s been a long time, and I’m not sure which, though Allium and I do call the candelabrum itself ‘Smaug’.

Smaug has been in my family since 1969. The artist had a little shop in Berkeley; Oakland’s just a few miles away, and Shawn Lovell is from a later generation, but oh, that’s fertile ground out there. Must be something in the water.



Heaven in a Very Small Package

Image of a Plate of Biskvier Pastries

These lovely things are a Swedish confection, allegedly beloved of Sarah Bernhardt; actually beloved of yours truly. The base is marzipan; the filling is a barely salty, barely sweet, incredibly light (but rich!) buttercream; the topping is dark chocolate.

I found these quite accidentally at a Swedish bakery near a home where we used to live. We aren’t close enough any longer for me to just stop by for a nibble or two, which might be a good thing . . . One day, though, I’m going to have to try to make them. What if we move out-of-state? Best to be prepared.

Flora’s Recipe Hideout has what looks like a good recipe. I’d watch that oil in the topping though — it makes for a smoother finish, but a purist like me would rather just have pure dark chocolate, even if it does look a bit lumpier.

Martha Stewart has a recipe online, too, but it looks unnecessarily complicated (which isn’t really a surprise).

Sometimes, these confections are actually called “Sarah Bernhardts”, but I’ve noticed that there are a few rather dubious concoctions by that name online — including some glop made with oatmeal. Beware of imitations!


Knitting With Wire

Image of Book Cover for the Book Knitting with Wire BookKnitting with Wire, by Nancie Wiseman. Interweave Press, 2003. Traditional knitting, Viking knitting, machine knitting (roughly 9 projects for each). Detailed information on making findings, tools, choosing wire and more. Beginner to advanced. Attractive and appealing projects. Ever-so-much more interesting than knitting with acrylic.