Dhobighat – washing dirty linen

Pallavi Poddar

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All we do is bundle up our dirty laundry and hand it over to our dhobi who brings them back nicely washed and ironed. What we do not realise is all that goes on behind the scenes at the dhobighats where the dhobis work tirelessly right from the wee hours of the morning. Mahalaxmi, home to one of the largest dhobighats of the city, has 907 stone basins neatly aligned side by side in a large rectangle. The coordinated thump of cloths, hitting the stone seems as though the washer men are on cue to some unseen choreography. The combination of detergent and water assaults the senses.

These washermen pick up the clothes from residences in the nearby communities or get contracts from the railways, BMC, and hotels. “There is no set limit on the clothes we wash in a day but each of us washes at least 200,” adds Misra, the dhobi mukhia. Then there are some who get a Rajdhani contract to wash all the linen of the trains. Though most of these dhobis are here on a monthly basis, there are some day dhobis too. Generally a dhobi earns Rs. 130 a day. “They make more money that way but we get job security our way”, accepts Misra.

Although every dhobi carefully marks his pile with the name or area of the residence or hotel to avoid mix-ups, sometimes the clothes get mixed up anyway. And they have to go back and deliver the right pile. Each stone basin holds up to 200-300 litres of water. Misra says, “No credit to the BMC. We have to hire and pull in an additional private line at our cost. The gutters remain unclean for days on end. They give us their dirty linen but limit the means to clean them.”

If you walk along the narrow pathway surrounding these basins, you’ll see hunched backs and a long stretch of criss-crossed clotheslines. “We usually line dry the clothes, but sometimes, especially for the thick clothes, we first put it into the hand rotated hydro-machine to squeeze out the excess water and then hang them to dry”, says Ram Lakhan, another dhobi. If you think they lead a hard life, rethink it. “I am well taken care of”, says Raju, an old-timer here, “I eat and sleep here. Laxmi bai, the resident teacher, teaches my children. I am fortunate to have my family with me. Most labourers live away from their families”.  A wise Ramji is allowing his children to break away from the family lineage, “I’m providing my children a good education; what they choose to do with it is their decision.”

Inspite of their seemingly positive outlook, you can sense that too much of their lives, energy and family time are used up serving others. “We could use a little appreciation every now and then,” concludes Misra.

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