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 as seen from Mahalaxmi bridge.]
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.
[Bundle of clean clothes to be carted back to their individual owners]
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.
[Artist's impressions of Dhobhi ghat.]
More Pictures on Flickr.
[Originally Published in the Hindustan Times, Dated 6th April]