November 29, 2011

The Tiffin

by Mahtab Narsimhan
Dancing Cat Books
190 pp.
Ages 9-12

Twelve-year-old Kunal cannot remember a time when he didn’t live with Sethji and Mrs. Seth and work tirelessly as a waiter and delivery boy for their dhaba (roadside restaurant) in Mumbai. Reminded constantly by the abusive Sethji that Kunal is an orphan and should be thankful for the life they have given him, Kunal can find little support to help him deal with the menacing, new cook, Badri, abusive customers, frightening beggars or thieving gangs. When Kunal’s attempt at stealing money for his escape is thwarted and his sale to the Beggar King, Abdullah, is imminent, Mrs. Seth provides him with some money and information about his mother before he escapes with Vinayak, the kindly old dabbawalla (deliverer of the boxed lunches known as tiffins).

From the introductory chapter to the story, the reader learns that thirteen years earlier, a young woman named Anahita had sent a message hidden in a tiffin to her lover, Anurag. That tiffin had the auspicious distinction of being the one in six million tiffins that does not reach its destination. The reader will recognize soon enough that this is the cause of Kunal's fate. From what Mrs. Seth shares with Kunal just before his escape, it is a fate that Kunal is determined to correct by locating his mother. And his relationship with the dabbawallas is critical to his search.

Mahtab Narsimhan’s story reads as a junior version of any Rohinton Mistry book set in India: the colours and textures, as well as the smells, both fragrant and pongy, are fundamental to scaffolding the characters and their stories. Narsimhan chooses her palettes carefully: for Sethji’s fetid dhaba, for the cacophony at Andheri Station (from which trains are used to deliver the tiffins), and for the drenching monsoon rains. Narsimhan’s powerful writing bares the despair of Kunal and others, and is sure to have emotional impact; fortunately, the reader will intuit a kernel of hope in Kunal’s story which will at least ease the overriding bleakness.

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