Dabbawalas (or tiffin-carriers) are an essential part of daily life in Mumbai, India. The ‘dabba‘ refers to metal tiffin or lunch boxes, packed with meals, that the dabbawalas carry from homes or eateries to offices and back every day. It is estimated that they carry close to 130,000 dabbas every day. The true genius of the dabbawala-system lies in the method in which the deliveries have organized and co-ordinated, perfected for the last 126 years. The imagined failure of this almost-infallible mechanism of delivery provides the films point of departure. — Oindrilla Ghosh

Illuminated initial D

ivided by centuries and separated by geography, space, and cultures, art in various media nevertheless brings together artists and their creations unexpectedly through the viewing experiences of audiences. It is therefore no wonder then that a film made in 2013 can exhibit marked similarities in plot and characterization, with a magazine short story written by a noted Victorian author in 1894. Irfan Khan, a versatile, talented, and celebrated Indian actor, carved a niche with his singular style in both Hindi mainstream cinema as well as in Hollywood productions. His face become familiar to world audiences in films such as The Life of Pi, Jurassic World, and The Amazing Spider Man, in which his performances were brief but notable. His death early this year which prompted revisiting his movies, one of which, the award-winning The Lunchbox (2013) strikes readers of Thomas Hardy as deeply resonant with one of his poignant short stories – "On the Western Circuit," which originally appeared in the December 1891 English Illustrated Magazine illustrated by Wal Paget and was reprinted in Life’s Little Ironies (Osgood, McIlvaine, 1894).

Admittedly, one can hardly term the film an adaptation of Hardy’s short story, or even assert that Ritesh Batra, the screen-writer and director, was consciously inspired by it. There are no obvious acknowledgements, nor is there evidence from Batra's interviews going back to film's initial screening at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and its awards at the Toronto International Film Festival and the British Academy Film Awards (2015). In fact, it would be quite unexpected for the creators of the film to be acquainted with Hardy’s shorter fiction, since many scholars and researchers of Hardy studies are not acquainted with his obscurer short stories. One is, thus, forced to presume that the similarities perhaps emerge as elements of certain unifying or universal traits present in all great pieces of art, or in the minds of great artists in every century, a gut-feeling, which make all cultural differences vanish almost magically. This essay attempts a close reading of these unintended and yet strong similarities that connect the two works of art, thereby trying to conclude how cultural and chronological divides are often dissolved by artists who utilise universal human emotions .

The Lunchbox tells the quiet, deeply moving tale of the accidental linking of the lives of Ila (Nimrit Kaur) and Saajan Fernandes (Irfan Khan). Ila, a housewife, who lives in a loveless, insipid, and emotionally void marriage, vainly tries hard to salvage it with culinary experiments to impress her husband. Meanwhile Saajan Fernandes, an irritable widower who works as a clerk in a government office, leads a monotonous, solitary life until an apparently minor chance opccurence suddenly makes it both interesting and turbulent. An improbable mix-up in the usually dependable lunch-box delivery system of the famous Mumbai Dabbawalas delightfully entangled the lives of two perfect strangers. And just when Ila's elaborate lunch menus intended to win back her husband's affection mistakenly reach Saajan, a series of hand-written lunch-box messages explaining the situation gradually creates a true friendship and a genuinely intriguing interest. However, the question whether the two long-distance friends have enough courage to take the next and most crucial step in their relationship provides the mainstay of the plot.

Three of Will Paget’s illustrations for "On the Western Circuit." Left: "It is mine," she said. Middle: It was a most charming little epistle. Right: "I wish he was mine!" she murmured.. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Since the film’s central motif involves the accidental mix-up of lunchboxes and the ensuing exchange of letters that bring together two individuals, binding them in a relationship which is unlikely to blossom,or come to fruition, it took me immediately to the plot of Hardy’s short story "On the Western Circuit," built also on an epistolary triangular love story. A young lawyer, on his way to the Western Circuit, meets a young housemaid, Anna, at a fair in Hardy’s Melchester (which is actually Salisbury). After several meetings, the attraction between them deepens, leading to Anna’s unwed pregnancy and the ensuing crises. Anna confides in her motherly mistress, the young wife Edith Harnham, who has always treated her as a child protégé.

The narrator informs us that Edith is a lonely woman whose "deeper nature had never been stirred in her marriage with an elderly wine-merchant" (108). Her frustrated maternal instinct seeps out through the cracks of her otherwise undemonstrative personality, almost unknown to her, and flows out towards her maid Anna. When Raye writes to Anna, the unlettered Anna seeks Edith’s help to write back to him and present her plight sympathetically. Edith's sophisticated, accomplished letter touches Raye and they begins to exchange letters. Marveling at the finesse of the someone whom he had taken to be an earthy, crude country girl, Raye he falls in love with the writer of these letters, whom he imagines to be Anna. Edith takes upon herself the responsibility for securing Anna’s future when she acts as an amanuensis for her maid, and she later continues the deception, because she feels she cannot abandon her protégée. Although in love with Raye herself and knowing well the effect of her deception upon him, she guiltily continues the exchanges and secretly revels in them as the only escape from her loveless marriage to a middle-aged husband. The story ends in tragic denouement, as Raye realizes that he is not in love with the one whom he has marries, Anna, but with her married mistress, Edith. A striking similarity at once emerges between Hardy’s short story and the plot of the 2013 Indian film.

Both film and short story are tales of muted, accidental, and misplaced love, and both convey the value of emotional succor over physical as the basis of fulfilling human relationships. Hardy’s narrator sardonically comments upon the nature of Edith’s marriage and consequent married life:

Edith Harnham led a lonely life. Influenced by the belief of the British parent that a bad marriage with its aversions is better than free womanhood with its interests, dignity, and leisure, she had consented to marry the elderly wine merchant as a pis aller, at the age of seven-and-twenty — some three years before this date — to find afterwards that she had made a mistake. That contract had left her still a woman whose deeper nature had never been stirred. [107-8]

Interestingly enough, towards the end of the story, when Edit returns home, emotionally broken after what turns out to be her last meeting with Raye, on being startled in her state of brooding she whispers to herself: “I forgot I had a husband!” (121) In a similar strain, Ila in The Lunchbox finally abandons hope of her marriage ever healing and makes the first suggestion of taking the epistolary relationship to actual an meeting.

Ila in The Lunchbox leads a life as monotonous as Edith’s, spending her entire day experimenting with new recipes (with the guidance of her elderly neighbour, who is just a voice in the entire film) to win back an estranged husband, who by the end of the film is discovered to be having an affair. This misery of Edith’s life is almost echoed in the film’s clever use of repetitive scenes of the silent television-dinners of Ila and her indifferent husband. Their lack of any conversation reaffirms the lack of connection between the couple. Hence, when Ila’s dabba or lunchbox comes back empty for the first time, she is temporarily moved with the possibility of bringing back spring to her wintery life. Edith, too, when she is drawn into becoming the amanuensis for illiterate Anna, treats this experience as a luxury: "the writing of letter after letter and the reading of their soft answers had insensibly developed on her side an emotion which fanned his; till there had resulted a magnetic reciprocity between the correspondents, notwithstanding that one of them wrote in a character not her" (108).

On realizing the dabbawala’s blunder, the next day Ila sends a note along with her lunchbox, at the suggestion of her neighbour, explaining the situation to Saajan Fernandes. Fernandes, who has spent a monotonous life for years now, with no access to home-cooked meals, marvels at the tasty food that arrives for him one fine day in his lunch box, and visits the hotel which delivers food to him every day, for years, leaving words of unexpected praise which surprise the cook and delivery boys. At this point, the unlikelihood of the food suddenly turning healthier and tastier amounts to an unexpected transformation that makes one draw a parallel with Raye’s amazement at the finesse in what he imagines to be the correspondence of Anna, a raw country maiden:

He had received letters from women who were fairly called ladies, but never so sensible, so human a letter as this. He could not single out any one sentence and say it was at all remarkable or clever; the ensemble of the letter it was which won him; and beyond the one request that he would write or come to her again soon there was nothing to show her sense of a claim upon him. [103]

So also with Saajan, who is made to look forward to the arrival of the lunchbox with the hidden missive every day! There is a telling scene in which the clerk sitting next to him stares at his impatient fidgeting with the lunchbox, much before commencement of lunchtime, because he was previously a nonchalant workaholic. On similar lines, the young London attorney Charles Raye also waits for the letters from Edith-Anna to arrive, and a correspondence builds that emotionally binds him to the unlettered Anna, finally leading to their disastrous marriage. Ila’s home-cooked lunch and the letters enter Saajan’s monotonous life like a ray of sunshine, and Raye’s infatuation for Anna is described by Hardy’s narrator in similar fashion: “He supposed it must have been owing to the seclusion in which he had lived of late in town that he had given way so unrestrainedly to a passion for an artless creature whose inexperience had, from the first, led her to place herself unreservedly in his hands” (101). A chance meeting, a slight acquaintance, and then a growing physical attraction to a country maiden lead to a life-long attachment, which he eventually experiences as imprisonment — all because of the deception practiced upon him by Anna and her mistress.

Both the Hardy story and the film deeply probe the problems of loneliness, unfulfilled human relationships, and the need for human beings to fill up the emotional vacuum in their daily lives in any possible way, even if that means overlooking moral issues. Ila is reluctant to continue writing the letters to Saajan for two reasons: she realizes the immorality of the situation and she also fears the lunch box might reach its rightful destination any day, viz. her husband’s office. The insistence and advice of her neighbour, to whom the film refers as ‘aunty’, persuades her to ignore her fears and continue. So also Edith, who, initially wanted to secure her maid’s social security, later invests her own emotions and feelings into the letters and is wrung with genuine guilt at having deceived Raye. Edith seeks to confess to him before he marries Anna, who begs him not to do so:

"O Anna!" replied Mrs. Harnham. "I think we must tell him all—that I have been doing your writing for you? — lest he should not know it till after you become his wife, and it might lead to dissension and recriminations —"

"O mis’ess, dear mis’ess — please don’t tell him now!" cried Anna in distress. "If you were to do it, perhaps he would not marry me; and what should I do then?" [114]

Like Edith, Ila in the film initiates the steps to reveal each to the other through an actual meeting. She offers to meet in person at a popular restaurant, but, at the appointed time, Saajan does not appear. Upon receiving an empty lunchbox the next day, Saajan writes back to the dejected Ila and apologizes, saying that he did arrive and having seen her from a distance could not approach her. He explains how young and beautiful she looked, while surmising that he is too old for her and advising her to move on. A confused Saajan retires prematurely and moves to Nasik while Ila writes the final letter conveying her determination to head for Bhutan with her daughter, leaving the nonchalant husband, who the film has already shown is having an affair. Saajan changes his mind and returns to Mumbai in search of Ila, with the help of the same Dabbawallas who started it all.

A significant similarity may also be noted in the setting or the backdrop of both film and story. While the meeting of Raye and Anna, and later of Raye and Edith, happens in the backdrop of an ongoing fair in the marketplace of Melchester (Salisbury), the backdrop of Lunchbox is the hullaballoo of the Mumbai Dabbawallahs and their usually faultless delivery system via the busy local trains. Hardy’s description of the fair suggests a similar setting:

The spectacle was that of the eighth chasm of the Inferno as to colour and flame, and, as to mirth, a development of the Homeric heaven. A smoky glare, of the complexion of brass-filings, ascended from the fiery tongues of innumerable naphtha lamps affixed to booths, stalls, and other temporary erections which crowded the spacious market-square. In front of this irradiation scores of human figures, more or less in profile, were darting athwart and across, up, down, and around, like gnats against a sunset. [90]

Hardy’s vivid description of the carousel in motion contributes to the dynamic setting: "three steam roundabouts . . . occupied the centre of the position. It was from the latter that the din of steam-organs came" (90). Thus, Hardy’s fair is similar in its hustle and din to the opening scenes of The Lunchbox. This backdrop of the mechanical and monotonous routine of tiffin-delivery foregrounds the fateful beginning of Ila and Saajan’s unique relationship. The toned-down dialogues, the meaningful use of silences and the slow-paced progress of the relationship are enacted against the daily furore of the dabbawallas taking care of their complex, yet supposedly fool-proof, encoding-decoding in the delivery chain. In both the film as well as the story then, the unusual relationships organically grow out of the routine, mundane or cacophonous surroundings.

The film and the short story thus both use cultural tropes appropriate to their societies and ages. The introduction of the penny-post in Britain in the Victorian era had made the writing, sending, and receipt of letters easier; and Hardy’s works are marked by what Karin Koehler rightly calls a "postal imagination" and he constantly uses ‘postal tropes and epistolary devices in such a way as to recover experiences and voices that habitually remain invisible’ (29). Similarly, The Lunchbox depends both for plot and leverage in the Dabba system, that perhaps only next to the local trains, acts as the backbone of Mumbai’s work-life.

Finally, these stories have similar endings. Hardy concludes with a powerful image of monotonous servitude to which Raye has been bound: "before his eyes he beheld as it were a galley, in which he, the fastidious urban, was chained to work for the remainder of his life, with her, the unlettered peasant, chained to his side" (120). Hardy here suggests the finality of a tragic ending. On the other hand, the film leaves open the possibility of reunion and fulfillment. Edith and Raye are separated and forced to live their imprisoned, unhappy lives (divorce being practically unavailable yet in Victorian England), whereas The Lunchbox ends with Ila’s leaving her husband to embark on her new life in Bhutan with her daughter and Saajan returns to Mumbai in search of her. Whether they are united or not remains unclear and the audience is left wondering if Ila will continue her ritual of culinary experiments for an indifferent spouse and whether Saajan will continue with his lonely dinners, living on a note of life-long regret for what could have been. The pattern of Hardy’s ironic plots loaded with patterns of missed-chances thus also dominates the film, too. A viewing of The Lunchbox may lead to a moment of discovery for any reader of Hardy’s short stories who will detect the similar patterns in the film’s and the writer’s sympathetic treatment of subtle and unexpected human entanglements. Viewing the film in the context of Hardy’s story will leave one with the conviction of Hardy’s unquestionable universality.

Related Material


Hardy, Thomas. "On the Western Circuit." The English Illustrated Magazine. December 1891, 275-288.

_______. "On the Western Circuit." Life's Little Ironies: A Set of Tales, with Some Colloquial Sketches entitled A Few Crusted Characters. London: Osgood, McIlvaine, 1894. 87-122. [All references are to this first volume edition.]

_______. Collected Short Stories, ed. Desmond Hawkins and F. B. Pinion. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Koehler, Karin. “A Modern Wessex of the Penny Post.” The Thomas Hardy Journal, 32 (Autumn 2016): 29-49.

Created 21 August 2020

Last modified 17 September 2020