Remember that calamitous moment in school, when the class teacher asked for yesterday’s homework with a cold steel ruler in hand? And you slid your hand ever so slowly inside the school bag, feigning to reach for the unfinished homework. How you imagined the cold slap of metal on your tender hands on a cold winter morning. And somewhere between all of this, your hands touched the stainless steel lunch box inside your bag that nursed your hands with the reassuring warmth of homemade comfort food.

And we felt all was well in the world. We found the largesse to convince ourselves, ‘This too shall pass’ and we dared to imagine beyond the pain, about the feast that awaited us at lunch time.

The lunch box is the closest substitute for the warmth of a mother. It’s the quintessential pacifier for growing kids who need to be weaned off their mother’s constant companionship. The weeping kids at pre-school find some consolation in the taste of the lovingly prepared meal by their darling mothers. The lunch box somehow convinces us that we are still not too far from home.

In school, lunchtime was the much needed pit-stop we needed for a quick refuel, before we headed out to play in the carefully budgeted lunch period. Lunch was a substitute for a visit to our friend’s home. And more often than not, we visited them all in that hurried limited buffet in the class room. And how discerning was our sense of taste! We might have not even seen a friend’s mother, but we could recognise her from a blind tasting test!

Amid the sharing of lunch all throughout school, we also grew up with a conundrum that’s unsolved to this day.
If everyone ate only out of their own tiffin, everyone would be full. But if everyone shared with each other equally, nobody ever felt full enough!

And as we shared our meals, we took our stomach on a gastronomical Bhaarat darshan. Our lunch comprised of two spoons of Upma, Half an Idli, quarter a Paratha, a slurry of curd rice, a handful of Poha, a disfigured cutlet, and assorted snacks that we trusted to be edible. Sometimes we scooped a fistful of Maggi, a dollop of pasta, a morsel of samosa on that odd special day. A random piece of lime pickle, a smattering of ketchup, and an odd dip in the green chutney, all washed down with hurried gulps of water.
The stomach was prepared for resilience right from school days.

But there were also days when we forgot to carry that lunch box, or someone hid it to have fun with us. Who could we blame when all pilferers pleaded victimhood? But the hunters often become the hunted too, and in the end nobody ever learned a lesson!

There is something crucial that we did learn at lunch hour though – the difference between civility and savagery. All we had to do was observe how girls and boys share lunch among themselves.

Boys would remember being injured with their finger cut from a stainless steel dabba grab-fest, juggling a hot paratha, getting their fingers pierced by forks, and all the pushing and shoving involved in the pursuit of one mouthful. On the other hand, girls would sit in a circle and eat with grace, while finding amusement in the public display of desperation from the boys. Girls always wondered why the boys acted this way. And the boys could never fathom why girls seemed to be growing faster when it was the boys who displayed a more ravenous hunger.

The weight of a full dabba has a gravity of its own. On a long journey away from home the dabba binds us to our roots, giving us comfort in each redolent morsel.
The dabba has always accompanied us regardless of our age. The dabba meant that you’re still cared for. That someone at home still called you by an adorable pet name, no matter how old you were. In a busy city like Mumbai, there’s an intricate web of Dabbawallahs who promise to deliver home-cooked food to your office doorstep. That speaks of what we long for through the dabba.

While most of us have experienced the joy of a dabba full of delicious food, only few among us have experienced the unspoken joy of a mother who washes an empty dabba late in the evening.

She knows that despite her proscription, her daughter did share the ghee and nuts laden halwa with her friends. She’s happy still, knowing that her daughter had the heart to share a delicacy with friends.

Until the dawn of the millennium, tiffin boxes were made of stainless steel, the most iconic of them being the three-floored skyscraper of a dabba, a familiar cousin of the indestructible Hero cycles. We have come a long way from that era. Moulded plastic lunch boxes have replaced the heavyweight champion. In fact, lunch boxes have become modern and stylish. Kids carry Tupperware as lunch boxes, something that was unthinkable in the late 90s. There are insulation lined lunch boxes that keep the food warm until lunch time. I remember the only way to achieve that back in the day was with the aluminium foil, something that only classier kids could afford. Looking back though, I’m glad none of our friends could afford that, else in the grab-snatch game at lunch hour, we’d all have accidentally ingested foil for food at some point.

However, most mischievous kids ensured that they had their lunch warm by finishing it when it was still warm, just after the first period.
Who needs foil, they’d say!
Their marginal moustache almost always bore signs of ingestion, in stark contrast of their staunch denial. Need one explain the genesis of the old Hindi saying – chor ki dadhi me tinka?

Just as the design of the box is changing, so are its contents. Toasted bread, cheese sandwiches, reheated pizzas, biscuits, and convenience foods are increasingly featuring in the lunch boxes of the school going generation today.
The advertising industry has been convincing us into using factory-made substitutes of what we believed to be indispensable, healthy meals. And given the pace of life today, one can empathise with the overworked mother who rationalises the temptation of sending a peanut butter jam sandwich for lunch.

Not only this, the rules in the school are changing too. There are schools that decree students to not share their lunch. It’s every man to himself here. Some schools have a kitchen and cafeteria, which comes as a relief for working parents. All kids eat the same meal. There’s no avenue to share. As we dish out these convenient measures we end up promoting a mono-culture that’s individualistic and unsavoury.

What will happen to the sisterhood found through sharing food?

We are what we eat.
In my school days, my friends and I ate almost exactly the same meal (give or take a morsel) as we shared food uncompromisingly at every lunch hour. Perhaps that speaks for why we still feel oneness with those who we shared our school lunch box with.

But with the culture of being kept from sharing food with friends, or having to eat the same meal in the cafeteria (without having to share), one wonders how it will affect children in the future.

Where is this headed?
We can only wait and watch. But don’t be surprised when kids aren’t as eager to share as they once used to be. They’re the least to be blamed for this change.

However things shape up, we can be glad to be a generation that still savours the good old charm of slinging a lunchbox to work.
And if we still carry a lunch box to office, we can only feel grateful.