To the laundry born

Toiling long hours outdoors, India's washing caste longs for a better life.

At 5:30 a.m., the sharp slap of wet cloth echoes as it strikes stone, blending with the soft clang of the first temple bells of the day. All night, on brick ovens that stretch for a block, fat bundles of white cotton sheets and towels have steamed like giant rice cakes.

One by one, the dhobies come to another day of work. They wash by hand the dirty linen of Bombay in a giant watery warren billed as the world's largest outdoor laundry and known as the dhobi ghats. By noon, thousands of saris in pink and orange, trousers with pockets turned out, fluttering white sheets, and blue factory uniforms will hang to dry - turning the churning ghats into a giant abstract expressionist painting in the midst of the most crowded city in India.

Dhobies in India are the washer caste, born to an ancient trade. They are Indian laborers. That means they wash from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. They eat a lunch of dal and chapati, sleep for two hours, then fold and press until dark. Children, older men, and women do the work of pushing a long flat-bed cart around the city. Sometimes they call out for laundry. Other times they work a route, picking up assigned wash from Bombay's three-star hotels, hospitals, factories, and apartment complexes.

In recent years, business in the ghats has slowed - the result of a still-new phenomenon in middle-class homes: the affordable washing machine. The subject is never very far from dhobi lips. "Today we get 1.5 rupees a piece," says one elderly dhobi. "Where is the profit?"

The dhobi ghats themselves are a series of 400 small tanks (or "tanki") built in the 1920s under the British. They stretch for hundreds of yards. The dhobies stand in calf-deep water, reach down for soaking laundry, and then slap the cloth onto a square stone with a motion like chopping firewood. Each piece is slapped about a dozen times.

Many tanki have been in the same family for generations. Families build up a business with four or five tanks. Others are leased or sub-leased from the city. Families also control spaces where laundry dries.

Charges per piece run from 1 to 20 rupees; some dhobi will clean a suit for 7 rupees - less than a dime.

Living in India's film capital, working beneath the slim art deco postmodern highrises, the dhobies feel acutely caught between two worlds. They listen to the radio and watch Hindi dance videos on TV while they work. They wear backwards baseball caps, Izod shirts, and running shorts with names of American colleges printed on them. Unlike their parents, today's washers think of getting out. Do they want their children to carry on the business? "No way," says dhobi Jagdish. A dhobi from Hyderabad leaves his tanki to get a much-folded job rsum. It includes two years washing in the Arab Emirates. "I want my kids to learn English and get a better job," says Pappu, a dhobi from Uttar Pradesh who controls four tankis. "If it is their wish, they can study."

The children themselves seem oblivious to the realities of a hard life. They sit, study, and copy work sheets all over the ghats. Ashu, a second-grader with a toothy smile, emerges from the family hut with a school briefcase nearly half his size. He hops on one of the tanki and begins unselfconsciously reading in English, while dhobies slap away. He shows off a test where his teacher underlined in red a perfect score.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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