Jab we met: Mumbai dabbawala recalls breakfast with Queen Elizabeth

Mumbai: It was not easy for two Marathi-speaking dabbawalas to converse with Queen Elizabeth, but they managed to overcome the language barrier, courtesy another royal, this one from India.

Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas, who operate a globally renowned lunchbox delivery and return system that supplies hot lunches from homes and restaurants to people at work, are mourning the demise of the queen, who marked 70 years on the throne this year, and was the oldest and longest-reigning monarch in British history.

Raghunath Medge, an office bearer of the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Association, told PTI that he spoke to the Queen and had breakfast with her twice when he and Sopan Mare, another dabbawala from Mumbai, were special guests at the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles in April 2005.

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Medge said they undertook an eight-day visit to London for the royal wedding.

We had breakfast twice with Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family. She was very humble, he said.

Although there was this language barrier, Padmini Devi, who hails from a royal family in Rajasthan, and was also an invitee for the wedding, helped in translation during our conversation with the queen, he said.

Our first breakfast with the Queen was at Birmingham Palace, while the second breakfast was at Windsor Castle, which was the venue for the royal wedding. We reached there by bus, Medge said.

Medge said he, Mare and Maharani Padmini Devi were the only invitees from India for the royal wedding.

He said Padmini Devi introduced them to Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and other members of the royal family.

Medge said that during their brief interaction, the Queen was curious to know about their tiffin service and asked them how they operate it.

She asked us how many people work as dabbawalas and how many of our generations were in the tiffin service business. She wanted to know how educated the dabbawalas were and for how long we had been working. We told her that we have been delivering tiffins from the time the British ruled India, Medge said.

Dabbawalas were unknown to the world but became famous due to Queen Elizabeth and the royal family, Medge said.

Medge said Queen Elizabeth had also enquired about them when Mumbai was attacked by Pakistani terrorists in November 2008.

In 2016, dabbawalas of Mumbai went out shopping to buy special gifts for Prince William and Kate Middleton, who were in the city on a short visit.

“When we attended the royal wedding in 2005, the British royals treated us like a family. Eleven years later, when Prince William and his wife came to India, we treated them as our son and daughter in law, he said.

Over a dozen dabbawalas, accompanied by their wives, had gone shopping in Dadar area to buy an expensive Paithani sari, considered an auspicious gift for a Maharashtrian bride, a headgear for Prince William, and a statuette of the Lord Vitthal, the presiding deity of the dabbawalas.

Asked about missing Prince Willam’s wedding in 2011, Medge said, We did not get the opportunity to attend that wedding but witnessed the live TV coverage. Both William and Kate looked beautiful. The association had then sent a special hand-made greeting card to the couple to congratulate them.

The dabbawalas had their first brush with British royalty in November 2003, when Prince Charles met them at Churchgate station in south Mumbai and was highly impressed by their work culture.

The prince was mesmerised learning about the way we work and heard us with rapt attention, he recalled.

On hearing of Prince Charles’ wedding announcement in 2005, the association sent a nine-yard sari for Camilla and a Maharashtrian turban for him, he said.

“Prince Charles accepted the gift and extended a special invitation to the association to attend his wedding. He even made air fare arrangements for two people and took care of other expenses as well,” Medge said.

Watching Prince William’s wedding ceremony on television, we reminisced about our experience. Prince William’s father is a big-hearted man who did not forget us and even took care of our stay in London, said Medge.

We saw the London Eye and the river Thames. But it was an expensive country where we couldn’t afford anything, he said.

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