Paromita Vohra: An Ode to Dabbas

Jun 03, 2018, 05:42 IST | Paromita Vohra

When I was a kid in the bhoola bisra yore of pre-liberalisation, dabbas were not that common and matching kitchen jars toh belonged in the advertisements of foreign magazines

Ode to Dabbawalas
Illustration/Ravi Jadhav

Paromita VohraIf you have a functioning kitchen, you have storage boxes, yaniki dabbas. But the question is: are all of them yours or do some belong to others? And, are all of yours there or are some with others?

When I was a kid in the bhoola bisra yore of pre-liberalisation, dabbas were not that common and matching kitchen jars toh belonged in the advertisements of foreign magazines. It was all recycled jam and coffee bottles. Boxes were for tiffins. For leftovers there were bowls with matching or mis-matched lids. A dabba just for storage purposes was an extra, a luxury almost.

But, dabbas today are not just for storage and tiffin. They are a necessary accessory to that common Indian practice of sending over food to your neighbours or bringing some to your friends when you make something special. That specialness could be a result of labouring over something — a dish that is arduous and time-consuming to prepare. Or something that is cooked only for occasions — like biryani for Eid or besan laddoos for Diwali or marzipan for Christmas. It could be something that’s a seasonal specialty — like Gujarati undhiyo or Punjabi sarson ka saag. Earlier, you always sent some over in a utensil from home, but dabbas soon replaced those.

The unspoken tradition is that you never return these dabbas empty. With utensils one was mindful of returning them, making something special just for that at times.

Today, dabbas may lie in wait for a long time, while you fantasise about domestic perfection. They are liminal objects — neither permanent, nor temporary.

But, though dabbas are now more plentiful — a dizzying and multicoloured plasticky plethora of lock and stop, Tupperware, retro tinsel finish, oven-proof bottom with air-tight plastic cover for fridge — we seem as concerned about them as with a dinner set. What you pack party leftovers in says a lot — in dabbas, means you trust they will be returned but are willing to risk that they won’t, it’s all give and take na? Delivery boxes or ziplock bags? A little no-strings attached. Who knows when you will meet next? Let’s keep it casual, no pressure.

Some people are easy going about dabbas. But most maintain a careful audit, reminding you to return them when opportune. Whoever sees the kitchen as their domain — you or your cook — feels indignant that one of the dabba-subjects is having so many night-spends in another household. It’s like an undermining of authority. Nothing belies the false illusion of control like the dabba though — you may monitor it, but you can’t guarantee its return for it is up to the other person. You may fume inside but imagine how stupid it would be to fight over a dabba. There must be some new-age lesson there. The dabba is a kind of a paradox — the generous desire to share and the mean-minded audit in one place — signifying our constant anxiety in co-existing with others.

Letting go of one’s dabba fixation is surely a sign of making peace with the world. I often smile when I see other people’s dabbas in my drawer. I mean to return them, but I kind of like having them — there’s intimacy and possibility there. Perhaps they feel the same way about mine. It’s a different kind of groovy kind of love.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer, and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

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