Mumbai’s historic laundry pulls crowd

Like hundreds of foreign tourists who visit Mumbai, Bill Clinton made sure he saw the 150-year-old Dhobhi Ghat next to the Mahalaxmi railway station in the heart of the city during one of his visits in Mumbai. Clinton, once the world’s most powerful man, stood atop a busy flyover to catch a glimpse of the Dhobhi Ghat.

Like many other foreigners, he was intrigued by the fascinating spectacle of rows of open air concrete wash pens, enclosed in a cubicle, with men doing the work of flogging machines at the vast expanse of the hutment-like colony.

“We were asked to move away when he (Clinton) arrived. And he stood up on the bridge for a considerable length of time to look at our colony below,” says Rajendra Bhandari (40) who runs a canteen nearby and also owns one of the wash tanks which he rents out to others.

Bhandari has been living in the area for 20 years and says what draws tourists to the ghat is “its unique charm, steeped in history”. He adds: “This place was constructed by the British in 1857. In those days only the clothes of Viceroys and senior British officials were allowed to be washed. The patthar (large chunk of concrete set inside the washing pen) which you see being used to beat the clothes to wash away soap and dirt) was built by the British. More than 150 years later, it remains intact. There is no sign of damage. We have not done any maintenance or repair work on them. The foreign tourists find such things very interesting,” says Bhandari.

Around 1928, the British leased the ghat to an industrial house, who in turn passed it to the city’s municipal corporation post-independence after the lease expired. Bhandari says initially there were around 532 washing pens but the numbers increased to 731.

Foreign tourists visiting Mumbai often ask cab drivers to take them to the dhobi ghat instead of the usual landmarks like the Gateway of India or Marine Drive. Even before they land in Mumbai, they are armed with information about the world’s largest laundry and are curious to see how in the age of washing machines, a modern city still has an old world operating system of disposing off dirty linen.

At any time of the day one can see the odd tourist standing up on the flyover and clicking pictures of the Dhobi Ghat. Sometimes he is accompanied by a tourist guide who extols the virtues of the Dhobhi Ghat and the dhobis. The visitor from overseas is forever surrounded by curious onlookers (mostly locals and children) who cannot fathom what makes the foreigners flock to the place when there are world famous monuments like the Gateway of India situated not too far away.

“I guess like the Gateway fascinates us because we don’t get to see it very often, this place charms the tourists as they do not have something like this in their country,” says Raj, a teenager who lives in one of the few rooms adjoining the washer men’s colony.

When a sought after location is situated in their midst can Bollywood be far away? Actor Sunny Deol’s film Salaakhen was shot at this location. And, recently, singer Daler Mehndi shot here for one of his music album. The Sanjay Dutt starrer Munnabhai MBBS also showcased a dhobhi ghat scene. “When film and ad shootings take place they pay us a fee and take about half a day. It does not really affect our work because we organise ourselves accordingly,” says Raj.

The 200-odd dhobi families diligently collect dirty laundry, wash and return it, neatly ironed, to swank homes of elites living in south Mumbai. Drying takes place on long, brightly coloured lines and heavy wood-burning irons are used for ironing.

Pyarelal who has taken one of the washing pens on a monthly rent of Rs 300, recalls his conversations with tourists. “They ask us how we manage to organise with the mountains of clothes that we deal with. We use markings on clothes so that none are misplaced or lost. In a day, one person can wash as much as 200 clothes. There are three people involved. One is engaged in the collection and deliveries of clothes while the other two wash and iron them. Women too work but there are more men doing this work. It provides a very good opportunity of a photo op for an eager foreigner; he takes back memories to his country,” he says.

Barring a few individuals, the city’s municipal corporation largely owns the pens and rents them out. The G – south ward, health department of the municipal corporation deals with the renting formalities. Pyarelal came from Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh five years ago and started his work. He says that hotels, dry cleaners, hospitals send their laundry and people from even the far flung suburb of Virar send their clothes to be washed. There are people mainly from Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh who work at the colony. While a few live in shanties inside the colony, most come from the adjoining localities of the inner city in Mumbai.

Bhandari rues that the land sharks have not spared the ghat which is located in a prime area. “Initially the Dhobhi Ghat was spread out over 22 acres but now it has shrunk to 10 acres because quite a few original owners sold off their portions and left the place,” he says.
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