Mr. Clean

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 4]

The dhobi is just one of the many visitors an average Bombay household gets - all those friendly faces that keep you busy answering your doorbell through the day - the dudhwala (milkman), the paperwalla (newspaper boy), the bhajiwalli (vegetable grocer), the machiwali (fisherwoman), the jamadar (garbage-collector), the watchman (security at the main gates), the maali (gardener - not in all cases) and the bai (maidservant).

Just the other day as I was handing my dhobi my favorite light canvas jeans to be washed and he hands them back to me pointing to a big designer hole in the right leg just above the knee, one inch square and frayed. I try handing them back but he refuses to accept them as if they are something illegal.

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 13]
[Dhobi ghat as seen from Mahalaxmi bridge.]

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 10]
[Dhobis unloading clothes to be washed at Dhobi Ghat, Mahalaxmi]

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 3] Water beteween your feet
[Water between your feet]

My dhobi probably thinks this is a ploy on my part to attribute the damage to him and claim for a new pair of pants. I throw in some more clothing into the big pile of laundry on the floor and give him a clear and simple verbal affidavit that the hole is both known and wanted. As I pay him I am curious to find out where my clothes are washed......Probably some large industrial washing machine that somehow always manages to conveniently eat up my socks. I ask anyway. "Dhobhi-ghat," he replies as he counts the money I hand him.

"You'll take me there? " I ask him. "Come with me, I'm going there now," he replies nonchalantly as he mounts the bundle of clothes on his head.

A thirty minutes journey in the luggage compartment of the train (through the Monday morning commuter chaos ) and we are there-Dhobi Ghat near Mahalaxmi station. I park myself on the bridge over the train tracks. On one side of the tracks is the Dhobi Ghat: a honeycomb of concrete wash pens each about five-feet square. Standing in a foot of soapy water in each of these cells is the Dhobi –the laundryman– and he swings the piece of clothing he is washing over his head to hit a flagstone at the base of his pen. He has the action of an old-style lumberjack cutting wood with a long handle hatchet. Laundry from all over Mumbai comes here and it occurs to me that maybe later one of those Dhobis will be flogging a light canvas jeans with a strange but unusually attractive hole in them. Each dhobhi pen or vat is connected with the drainage line. The vat is filled with soapy water. The Dhobi Ghat has about 750 stones and at about 1000 clothes per stone per day it works out to about 7.5 lakh clothes daily.

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 12]
[Bundle of clean clothes to be carted back to their individual owners]

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 1] - Slap of the Wrist

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 8]

No laundry receipts and no complicated databases on computers, yet my clothes are delivered to me the next day, in near perfect condition through the efficient young dhobi. But what transpire in those hours that the clothes leave your home till the time they come back is a mystery in itself.

The clothes go first to the Dhobi Ghat or to the dhobi's home. Then all the clothes are separated on the basis of their colours. They are then washed, sun dried and then ironed to crease perfection. The clothes are then sorted and packed off to 'their' respective homes. And all this is possible due to those little black marks made on the garments at the time of collection. So at the end of a long working day, you don't have to bother with trivialities like 'laundering and ironing clothes'.

A train pulls into the noisy station and I see the packed commuters bulging out of the never-closing doors. The Dhobis continue, attentive to their tasks and oblivious to the chaos of the railway.

Next morning my clothes arrive in a neat paper parcel loosely tied with a string. Yes, all my clothes are there. I change and feel fresh and clean once more.

Dhobi Ghat [Photo 6]
[Artist's impressions of Dhobhi ghat.]

More Pictures on Flickr.

[Originally Published in the Hindustan Times, Dated 6th April]

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V said...

Oh so it was fun because it smelled like detergent?! that's it?
The clothes line pic is my favourite among all :)
I have a similar one though with a different subject!

Karnail said...

Good. I think there is no such place in Delhi. But I pesonally feel that by getting your clothes washed at such places you are likely to get Dhobi-itches, due to this I never get my clothes washed from them. Further as faor social arrangements are concerned, we in Haryana, Punjab, Rajsthan and western UP know Dhobis only as a caste but have never seen them washing(they only iron these days) in the society. I always wonder how this large community srvived in the olden golden days of social cohesion, in which all the other people(cobblers, ironsmiths, masons,weavers and carpenters)had got some thing or the other to do.

Anonymous said...

lovely pics as usual. it is always a pleasure to visit your blog.

Annie said...

I really like this place in Mumbay but I didn't manage to make good photos there, and your's are really nice.

apu said...

You know, beyond the pics etc - what I really like, is the way you've written about a completely different profession and world, without exoticising it, or making them seem like animals in a zoo. I think its tough for even well meaning writers to achieve that. Kudos!

Quaint Murmur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Quaint Murmur said...

I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog.
Not many people can write simply and still conjure up an image, with the tiniest details in the reader's head. You succeed in doing that. And how.
The pictures are beautiful, to say the least. They can hold their own without any description.
In in the end, writing like this-where the readers can see and feel it all for themselves- is really the best kind.

Good luck with your writing :)

Viewer said...

Hey nice interpretation of the one ofa kin place. The pictures are awesome as usual.

Rajesh Dangi said...

Lovely Post!! nice shots...

Bobin said...

Hey!! Great post this! Why don't you do something like this with the dabbawalas? I really would love to know exactly how they do what they do!!

Musings.. said...

Mumbai is so special!! I remember in Nagpur as a kid the dhobi came door to door in a bullock cart and loaded our bundles into the cart .. he came back promptly the week after with neatly folded and clean smelling clothes!!!

Ms Cute Pants said...

Absolutely fabulous! All those years in India I never knew where the clothes went to. Loved this behind the scenes look! I just stumbled upon your amazing blog & as I'm trying to read your posts your amazing pictures are distracting me! Kudos!

FriedClyde said...

very very nice :) just came across your blog!

Ashish Sidapara said...

Nice documentary stuff, i miss bombay!

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

very nice post, awesome pictures, you make me cry with bombay-sickness!


Biby Cletus said...

Nice post, its a really cool blog that you have here, i like the way you present things, keep up the good work, will be back.

Expect more from you...

Warm Regards

Biby Cletus :- Blog

Perspective Inc said...

Awesome pics...

ankurindia said...

its interesting to see how they do it on such a large scale. but are not washing machines destroying there business .i mean why do peoples go to them instead of using machines

vineeta said...

deadly post :)

Anonymous said...

Great piece of research! what exactly are the "dhobi marks" like? alphabetic letters? hieroglyphics? I remember from childhood, seeing them stick a pin into some ball of ink-paste to make marks into the clothes - but never till now thought about the whole big logistical aspect of how these were used to track individual households! so amazing!