The Lunchbox by Susmita Bhattacharya

Nikhil picks up the Mid-Day from the receptionist’s table and walks back to his cabin. He sits back in his chair, and flicks through the newspaper. He cannot concentrate as his mind is somewhere else. This morning, his boss has finally offered him what he has been working so hard for all these years. A year’s contract to work on a project based in New York. He, of course, has no intention of returning once the contract is over. He wants to be there, where most of his IIT batch mates are, and prove to them that he too is capable of making a life out there.

He gazes out of the window. Below, the street is bustling with office-goers on their lunch break. The stalls are crowded, with the hawkers dishing out plastic plates full of orange-coloured Chinese fried rice and vegetarian Manchurian gravy. He looks at his watch. The dabbawalla should be here any minute. Nikhil doesn’t have to eat out, standing in the sweltering heat and dust, eating cheap fried rice in artificial colouring. His wife, Sheila, sends him a lunchbox every day. Despite her rigorous routine at the hospital, where she works in the nephrology department doing a research in kidney dialyses, she prepares his food and sends it through the dabbawalla.

There is one hitch to Nikhil’s American dream: Sheila doesn’t want to go to America. Her research work here is vital, and she is very enthusiastic about it. Will she make the ultimate sacrifice and leave her career for his? Nikhil isn’t too sure about that. She doesn’t talk about America the way he does. All she sees are obese teenagers living on McDonald’s burgers and Coca-Cola. He wants to own a duplex house with a driveway, just like his brother does in Wisconsin. She wants an apartment at Raheja Gardens, which is down the road from their rented flat; the complex has its own swimming pool and clubhouse. The small differences blow up to extreme proportions as Nikhil analyses them. He likes pizza, but she likes pav bhaji. He wears jeans and the Calvin Klein T-shirts his brother gets for him from London every year. She has a collection of two hundred saris in her wardrobe. He watches CNN news, while she watches NDTV. He subscribes to Newsweek and she to India Today. It will be tough, he realises, but he will speak to her today. Sheila will have to make the decision: if she wants to go with him or be left behind.

There is an article about dabbawallas in the newspaper. Nikhil looks at it with some interest. These men deliver his lunch every day, and there is such a big issue made out of them. As he reads, his dabbawalla knocks on the door and enters. “Your dabba, saab,” he says and places it on the floor, by Nikhil’s desk.

“Thank you,” Nikhil says from over the top of the newspaper. “Do you know you are in the news today?”

“Pardon, sir?” The man looks confused. He’s in a hurry to deliver the other lunchboxes, but he lingers.

Nikhil reads the article and translates it for the dabbawalla:

“Every day the dabbawallas ferry about 170,000 dabbas across the island city. Their accuracy in delivering the right lunchbox to the right person with only a colour coded symbol on the dabba is a subject of research in many business schools across the globe. For most of the dabbawallas are illiterate, yet their accuracy is rated as a sigma six or at 99.99%, which means one error in six million, on par with some of the world’s best organisations.”

The dabbawalla nods matter-of-factly. “It’s only our job, saab. I don’t understand all that number business. I don’t know what the big sahibs make of our humble work. We only feed millions to feed ourselves as well.”

Nikhil smiles and jabs his finger at the figures in the newspaper. “But still, such accuracy is commendable. One error in six million? Amazing!”

The dabbawalla shrugs and straightens his Gandhi cap. “As long as saab is happy with my service, maybe he’ll give me better Diwali baksheesh this year!” He looks at Nikhil with a sideways glance.

Nikhil laughs and waves him out. “Clever chap, making the most of the opportunity.”

The dabbawalla smiles and leaves the room.

Nikhil looks at the lunchbox and sighs. Sheila is a very efficient and loving wife, he accepts that. Who else will send homemade meals every day in spite of a busy schedule? But then, why isn’t she just a simple housewife? Like his mother, who travelled with his father on his transferable job to different parts of the country? She had dedicated her life to her husband’s career and her children’s education. In fact, she had given up her studies when she got married at eighteen years of age. What an enormous sacrifice she had made, and yet she never regretted it.

He has forgotten how proud he’d been when Sheila chose him amongst many suitors as her life partner. How he had supported her though her post-graduation, how excited and relieved he was when she graduated and added the Dr before her name.

He pulls his tie loose and slumps back on his chair. He must make the decision tonight.

He reaches out and puts the lunchbox on his table. There are four boxes, stacked one on top of the other, and he opens them one by one. The first one has two naans. The second one has tandoori chicken. His face brightens. Sheila usually doesn’t send meat in the lunchbox, so it’s a nice surprise. There’s a cold yoghurt mint raita in the third. Nikhil uncovers the fourth one and frowns. She’s forgotten the vitamin pills. The last container is empty, except for a piece of paper folded many times over.  The paper is scented, and he sniffs it suspiciously. It smells of sandalwood, like the soap Sheila uses every day.

Nikhil unfolds the paper and reads. It is a poem:

Pluck this little flower and take it,
delay not!
I fear lest it droop
and drop into the dust.
I fear lest the day end
before I am aware,
and the time of offering goes by.

There is no signature, but only a hurried pen stroke in the shape of a heart. Nikhil stares at it. It is Tagore’s poem from the Gitanjali, one of his favourites. He glances at the writing: it is written with a calligraphy pen. When did Sheila get so artistic, he wonders? But still, he is pleased. She’s been thinking of him. This poem is surely a message for him. Sheila isn’t very good at expressing her feelings, he knows that. All the bravado and show of independence is really a shield to protect her soft nature, he tells himself.

He reads the poem again, feeling the texture of the handmade paper between his fingers. They need to spend more time together, and work out what they want out of their marriage. Maybe he can see her point of view. Maybe they ought to have a baby now, and focus on a family life. Maybe America can wait… till they are both ready. Right now, their relationship needs nurturing. No, he can’t leave her and go. It will be lonely out there, and what good is a house and big car if she is not there to share it with him?

Nikhil’s spirit rises as he finishes his lunch. He will tell his boss that he cannot accept the offer. He will be there for Sheila, and stand by her, not desert her. He whistles softly as he closes the lunchbox and places it back on the floor. He then goes downstairs to have a smoke.

Meanwhile, on another floor of the same office, Khanna is back from his honeymoon. He opens his lunchbox. His wife had promised to send last night’s tandoori dinner for his lunch. He opens his dabba and stares at it. There’s rice, something he never eats, and lentils and a vegetable he’s never seen in his life. He gapes at the lunchbox. He’s certainly not going to eat this stuff. What was she thinking, he mutters to himself, and he walks out of the office to eat the hawker’s food.

“Hey, Khanna,” his colleague yells after him. “Did your Mrs send you another instalment of poetry today?”

He hears the others giggle as he passes. “Read it aloud, read it aloud,” they chime in unison.

Khanna clicks his tongue in irritation. He ignores their teasing and smiles at them. “Anybody interested in Chinese today?”

This post is brought to you by
The Odds Against a Starry Cosmos
 by Abby Bland


The Odds Against a Starry Cosmos explores the intimacy of human relationship and growth against the backdrop of the natural world, moving through moments of grace, brokenness, and wonder.

Published by Perennial Press

About The Author

Susmita Bhattacharya is an award-winning author and creative writing lecturer. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015, BEE Books, India 2016) was long-listed for the Word to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018) won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019) and was a finalist for the Hall & Woodhouse DLF Prize, 2019. Her short stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and been featured on BBC Radio 4. She teaches creative writing at Winchester University, facilitates the ArtfulScribe Mayflower Young Writers programme in Southampton and has been involved in several Mayflower 400 projects in 2020. She lives in Winchester.

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