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Acquiring new skills

Mumbai’s dabbawalas are learning to cross language and technology barriers by taking classes in their free time

entertainment Updated: Oct 17, 2010 17:23 IST

When the 65-year-old secretary of a dabbawala association and his employees attend classes on their day off, it sums up their conviction and drive to excel. “We have been attending classes for English and computers. They are purely voluntary and are held after work hours and on Sundays,” says Gangaram Talekar, Secretary of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers. Needless to say, there haven’t been many dropouts.

Urge to learn
“If you know English, then why shouldn’t I?” questions Talekar. The dabbawalas may be perfectly efficient, but knowledge of English would help them improve by leaps and bounds. “It’ll be easier for us to read addresses,” says Talekar. “Besides, lots of people in South Mumbai don’t speak Hindi and Marathi.”

He points out that the motto of the dabbawalas is to serve everyone in the city, irrespective of language barriers. Computers would help them take orders online, cutting down their dependence on manual labour.

The course
Designed by the Yashwantrao Chavan Maharashtra Open University Nashik (YCMOU), the three-month course gives the dabbawalas basic knowledge of English and Computers.

The Agrawal Institute of Management and Technology (AIMT) conducts it in Mumbai. Incidentally, Dr Agrawal, president of AIMT, made Mumbai’s dabbawalas the subject of his Ph.D. thesis.

In three months, the dabbawalas will have to face an exam. Those who clear it will be awarded a certificate. “YCMOU approached us, saying that they would conduct this course for free. How could we turn down the offer?” asks Talekar.

The setup
AIMT is conducting their lectures in a simulated local train compartment, to give the dabbawalas an incentive to learn.
Their fully equipped computers have desktops that resemble the exterior of a train. All computers have been personalised, with some displaying images of the dabbawalas with Prince Charles and Richard Branson. Others display their gleeful memories of an interaction with Jackie Shroff.

Progress report
Teacher Ravindra Sawant has only words of praise for his wards. “They pick up faster than the average 4th or 5th standard student,” he beams. “Written skills are poor, but their verbal language is good. They have a tremendous amount of common sense, which will ensure that they don’t give up.”

Sawant has been teaching the dabbawalas in Marathi, slowly translating sentences and explaining phrases. “I have no doubt that they will be able to speak English soon. They’re a clever bunch,” he says.

The class
* My entry into the simulated train for the English lecture prompted the dabbawalas to stand up and greet me with a sincere ‘Good morning, madam!”

* The lecture started with a revision of what was taught the previous week. “They revise their lessons and recite them every week. I have to make sure they don’t forget,” smiles Sawant.

* Talekar stood up first. “My name is Gangaram Talekar. I live at Byculla. I am 65 years old,” he announced confidently. Applause erupted, as Talekar took his seat, grinning from ear to ear. The others followed suit, with the occasional stutter. If one fumbled, the other jumped to his rescue, putting words in his mouth. I felt the urge to prompt them too.

* Pronouns and verbs took up the entire second half of the lecture. “I write, he writes, she write, they write,” wrote Sawant on the blackboard, as the dabbawalas bent over to scribble furiously in their books. Handwriting surprisingly neat, they followed every instruction to the T. Five more verbs were tackled before Sawant called it a day. “Thank you, madam,” they said, waving good bye.

* Talekar showed me out. “You know, we get invited by a lot of management institutes to discuss our system. They refer to us as management gurus. Now, this guru is attending school to learn,” he chuckled, adding, “I will give you my next interview in English!” I believed him.