A throwback to tiffin time

Through the lens, lightly


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 10 Feb 2022, 10:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 11 Feb 2022, 4:48 PM

I love the word tiffin. Not because of its similarity to Tiffany’s, but because it brings to mind “tiffin time” and “tiffin box” and “tiffin break” and “tiffin room”. Words I looked forward to during my misspent school days.

According to Cambridge dictionary, tiffin is an ‘Indian English’ word, meaning “a small meal, especially one that you eat in the middle of the day”. Back in the day, it was a no-frills word: there was no concept of a balanced meal or a ‘back to school’ Tupperware range. It was just something you tucked into during the course of the day.

But more than pure semantics, it is what tiffin stood for during my childhood years that’s more interesting. Tiffin, for me, was my initiation to “sharing”. You shared your tiffin with your classmates. Not all of them, of course; the “close” ones, the ones with who (subsequently) bonds and friendships stood the test of time.

Tiffin boxes were a big deal. At times, I would get them as birthday gifts. In school, there used to be a snobbery about them. If you had a good-looking tiffin box, people would warm up to you and sidle up next to you. It would mean that the food inside was likely to be higher quality.

For most part, my tiffin — usually “fixed” by my mother — used to be a jam sandwich (Kissan jam, the mixed fruit variety), or a cheese one (grated Amul cheese, slices were yet to hit store shelves), or a hastily put-together cucumber-and-tomato one, or, on rarer occasions, an egg sandwich (mashed boiled eggs mixed with mustard); if I had been on good behaviour, I’d get an attendant sandesh (the Bengali sweet) that I got to choose from a wide array on display at the sweet shop right next door to our place. (As I grew older, I was expected to make my own tiffin, so I’d ensure I used excessive butter to grease the bread.)

On special occasions (like when our domestic help-cum-cook Shanti-di had all the time in the world), I’d get a few luchis (the Bengali pooris) with a dry subzi, or “chowmeen” (as Shanti-di would call it) made with desi spices; those were days when I’d be the most popular girl in class, when everyone tried their luck to be my ‘tiffin mate’.

There used to be another practice that has today become part of the remains of the day legacy: when you held up your tiffin box lid in front of the main box like a wall or a partition in a vain attempt to secure privacy; maybe you had something fabulous you didn’t want to share or maybe it was something horrid you didn’t want to feel embarrassed about… ultimately, however, somebody would creep from behind and see it all and spill the beans — for better or for worse.

Later, as I became part of the workforce, lunches were carried in plain vanilla tiffin boxes — at a time when “ordering in lunch from that keto place” was unheard of. There was one colleague who used to get the softest, tastiest parathas, a delicious potato curry and a pat of mango pickle every single day to office. One day, he was nice enough to offer me “a bite” and I pounced on his box like a starving man does to a six-course meal. Thereon, I became a fixture at his desk whenever he would open his tiffin box. There was a numerical pattern though: he would never bring more than three parathas, even though I had indicated to him — in no uncertain terms — I would like it if he got a few more. But then, he had no qualms about giving me one whole paratha, at times one and a half because he claimed he didn’t really “enjoy” eating since it was a non-intellectual activity.

A few months back, a former colleague’s reference came up. I had worked with him at my first job in the 1990s, and all I could remember was his tiffin box. He had a steel one, that had seen better days; one of its lid fasteners was faulty so he had to be careful while putting it on back after his meal. The box would contain rice and some curry, that he would eat with a spoon, sitting solemnly in one corner. There could be an earthquake or a guerrilla attack, we used to joke, but this guy wouldn’t be parted from his tiffin while he ate.

So, when the reference came up, I immediately asked, “The guy with the tiffin box that contained curry and rice?”

Tiffin had finally become a trope.


More news from Lifestyle