Sunday, December 4, 2011
The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan
The Tiffin is an beautifully crafted story about a young boy full of courage, integrity and hope written by Bombay-born Mahtab Narsimhan. The story opens with the hint of a tragedy about to befall a young unmarried woman, Anahita. She writes a note to her lover, Anurag Parekh, placing it in his tiffin, a tin lunchbox which is delivered by dabbawalla's throughout the city of Bombay. The note bears shocking news which Anahita must get to Anurag and the safest way to do this is to place it in his lunch. When her regular dabbawalla is sick, Anahita is concerned that her tiffin might get lost or stolen - an almost unheard of occurrence. But in a one in six million chance, Anahita's tiffin doesn't make the train to Bombay and is lost, with tragic consequences.
The novel skips ahead thirteen years to tell the story of a boy named Kunal who works as a slave in a Bombay dhaba (restaurant) named Bombay Bahar. The Bombay Bahar supplies food for customer's tiffins, which are then sent to the train station and into the center of Bombay. Over two hundred thousand tiffins are delivered precisely at noon daily usually without ever losing a lunch box.
Kunal's life is not a happy one. He has been told that he is an orphan, dumped on the doorstep of Mrs Seth and her husband who own the dhaba. Kunal is given little to eat, often beaten, verbally abused and there are suggestions that he is enduring sexual harassment by both customers and some staff because he is very good looking. Kunal does have one friend though, and that is the older Vinayak, a dabbawalla who frequents the dhaba for breakfast every day. After another altercation at the dhaba, in which Vinayak defends Kunal, Vinayak offers Kunal a place of refuge if he should ever need one.
Soon after, Kunal decides to leave but returns to steal the wages owed to him. He is captured by Seth, who viciously beats him and decides to sell Kunal to The Beggar King, a vicious man who cuts off the legs of young boys to make them into pitiful beggars. With the help of Mrs Seth, Kunal not only escapes but learns that he is in fact, not an orphan but has a mother. The Seth's took Kunal in temporarily to help his mother who left a letter with them. When she never returned, he was left to his fate. This shocking revelation changes the direction of Kunal's life but fills him with hope. His deepest desire in life has been to be a part of a family and be loved.
From this point on, the novel tells the story of Kunal's attempt to find his long lost mother. With the help of Vinayak, Kunal learns the work of a tiffin carrier and devises an audacious plan to locate his mother.Will he succeed in what seems to be an impossible task?
The Tiffin's greatest strength lies in Narsimhan's incredible ability to realistically portray life in Bombay to young Canadians who will have no concept of living in a teeming city filled with dangers and such poverty. Mahtab Narsimhan's descriptions of India and the people are superb filling the senses through her wonderful descriptions and interesting characters. The author is able to develop each of her characters in a way that is realistic and engaging to her readers.
Not many North Americans know about tiffin lunches, although some restaurants now offer this service. The tiffin is use in India and some other areas of southeast Asia. It is a tin lunch box which at least two separate compartments for storing food. The food can be made hot and will keep warm for up to three hours. Wives of workers often make their husband's lunches or they made be made by a restaurant too. The tiffins are then delivered by tiffin wallas usually by train to all parts of the city with incredibly efficiency. Lost tiffins are rare. Mahtab Narsimhan's novel is a great way to introduce an important bit of Indian culture to the young people of Canada.
Mahtab has a website and a blog entitled Moonlight Musings. Narsimhan grew up in Bombay and lived there for twenty five year. Now living in Toronto, Canada, she is an accomplished author who began her writing career in 2004. This novel is highly recommended for young teens.
The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan
Toronto: Cormorant Books 2011