There are five more minutes for the recess bell to ring but I can already spot little fingers reaching out to something hidden in their desks and reach back to the mouth. As Huzefa closes his eyes and savours the beef sandwiches his mother had so lovingly packed for his dabba today, his partner turns to him and flashes a sly grin – like a pact has been signed between two countries. While I watch this scene from a distance, the shrill bell rings and I have a task at hand to find Huzefa in the chaotic din that surrounds me now.
There are tiny fists flying in all directions, shrill voices calling out to other shrill voices and many aromas of food mixing into one in the classroom air. I see wafers, sweets, sandwiches, parathas, things-I-have-no-clue-of and a generous dose of confusion. Somehow, I manage to become a part of the confusion at St. Ignatius High School and try to figure out why school-dabbas cause the kind of frenzy they do.
I finally spot 10-year old Huzefa eating from the lunchbox of another friend Advait and walk up to him to ask him where his dabba is. “It’s over!” he exclaims with delight and continues eating from Advait’s dabba. I wait for the children to settle down with their dabbas and friends by their side before I begin to ask them about their dabba tales. I meet almost 700 children during the course of my journey and each one had a different story to tell; of dabba stealers, their favourite dabba food and the food that makes them cringe. I came, I saw and I was conquered. Their excited voices and hands pointing in various directions added to all the fun during the course of questions asked.
The dabba plays a pivotal role among school folklore and has a major place to occupy among yearbook memories and nostalgic meetings with friends. I saw dabba wars, rising stars and angels that fell from glory. Wars waged between sandwiches and pasta, between beef curry and parathas. Then there are plain Jane dabbas; dabbas with “lacklustre” food – idlis, roti-sabzi, cucumber and tomato slices and dry fruits.
There were the dabba stealers – an average of two experts per class. These experts are usually coy, skinny boys that have an innocent look plastered to their faces! They stole dabbas in broad daylight when its proprietors were out of class in loos or meeting friends in other classes. These chaps collapsed into peals of laughter once their owners condemning them for their actions. However, these champs remain unaffected by what the masses have to say; they live by the motto ‘Stolen dabba food is the tastiest dabba.’ When I ask one of the experts to confirm, he flashes a toothy grin at me while his classmates blanket him with the noisy din of mutual agreement.
In a class of 75 children, almost 68 children were armed with dabbas of goodness. Following closely are the dabba stars – dabbas that intoxicate the masses with their contents. Dabbas that carry delectable sandwiches stuffed with meat, with veggies and the absolute favourite Salman and Shahrukh of the dabba world – Nutella and Peanut Butter and jam. Amrit, 9, a student in class 4 of N.L.Dalmia High School is one of the few in his class who constantly switches between dabba chor and dabba star. He would like to believe that he is the Robin Hood of all the people from dabba land.
‘Everything that rises shall fall’ someone has proudly proclaimed. If there are dabba stars, there are warriors that have fallen from glory too. These dabbas do not attract even a single glance from the stars or the plain Janes. They come full of salads, idlis and dosas, and fruits.
If there are dabba stars, there is bound to be a dabba war; a battle for whose dabba rules over other humble dabbas. There were many stars – all in their own right. There were dabbas full of franky rolls, hot dogs, grill cheese sandwiches and many more that fought for the coveted spot. Further stats revealed that :
- There are a minimum of five children per class that don’t bring a lunchbox and prey over other mouth watering dabbas.
- Sandwich is the Superman for emergency dabbas; there were a minimum of 20 children in a class with sandwiches in their lunchboxes.
- Children will eat anything that is not a usual dabba feature – pastas, hot dogs, pav bhaji, puris and chunks of fried meat.
- Also, they will not eat anything that has the “health” tag associated with it – idlis, chapatis, dry druits, salads (unless the kid can see his/her mother’s angry face floating over the dabba)
- Almost every second child has a dabba “secret” where they make sure to eat during classes when the teacher turns to face the blackboard.
- Kids hate to see anything that is not colourful – idlis, dosas and poha were the main culprits in this zone. A minimum of three fallen angels were found in each class.
Lastly, every kid I met was passionate about the food they ate during lunch breaks. All of them made sure to eat all the good food they could lay their hands on and then proceeded for playtime. However, some save all the goodness to themselves an devour their dabbas on the way back home. Tej, 8, indulges in the solitary pleasures of his mothers fried cheese balls, pakoras, sandwiches and pasta bakes and he has no regrets.
No child is worried about going home with a full dabba. An uneaten dabba means mom’s wrath. Whatever happens every child will find someone to polish off their dabba. There’s no way a mom can verify if her child’s eaten everything that has been packed for him/her. Unless, of course, there’s a tattletale in school who rats about his friends to their parents. I wouldn’t want to be in that kid’s shoes when his friends find out!