Monday, 10 November 2008

To the city that never sleeps

Packing my bags for a night flight to Mumbai, a cheap brochure on Asia’s largest laundry alley in Mumbai catch my attention sticking out at an odd angle from one of my rucksack’s many pockets. “Don’t forget the Dhobi Ghat. Not exactly on your way but you might learn something there,” sneers my roommate eyeing the piece of paper in my hand which she had rudely shoved in minutes before, as a not- so- subtle hint to my supposedly OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) ways.

A day later, I was to hear the name again. Squinting at the angry afternoon sunlight on Mahalaxmi Bridge in Mumbai, I was on the lookout for a young thirty something lady who was assigned by the Tourism Board to accompany me in my tour of the city. If you are a South Indian and on your first visit to India’s commercial capital, you would have arrived into the city with countless warnings about pick pocketeers, eve teasers and rapists echoing through your head. As I waited on the crowded bridge, thoughts flashed across my head and I almost yelped when I felt a small but sturdy poke on my back.

I turn just in time to hear a chirpy. “Manik Walame, Official Tourist Guide from India Tourism Board, at your service madam.” I grinned. It was not very often that you get to instantly like the guide you are assigned to on your travels. Most just nose through tour itineraries.

“Let’s just get out from this mad rush of people and bullocks Manik.I can barely hear myself think.”I shout to the 4’ lady who return my suggestion with a frown.

“But this is our first tourist spot-Dhobi Ghat,” she shouts back her eyebrows narrowed to strongly accompany her response.

“Dhobi what?” I think aloud the familiarity hitting me like a ton of bricks.

“The Dhobi Ghat is a unique feature of Mumbai city and one that has lately been of great interest among tourists from different parts of the world. Their literal translation meaning ‘Laundry Rows ‘, these portions of the city have been a part of Mumbai for over 120 years, the most famous of the lot being the one in….”

“Where the hell did you learn to speak like that, Manik?”

“….Saat Rasta near Mahalaxmi Station”

“Maha…station. Isn’t that nearby,” I shout amidst the din of the crowd as a train chugs into view.

“Its just behind you,” she replies in a mock weary tone.

“Wha…” I turn to look behind me and at what I thought all along was one of Mumbai’s slum pockets. What I actually now notice is a whole new scene of colour and noise with lines of pristine and well starched clothes and beneath them row upon row of concrete washpens, each fitted with its own flogging stone and on which bare chested men beat what look like long slings of clothes.

I remember with a shudder my own college days when laundry was an expensive option on our meagre pocket money and the cloth stone was the only way to cleaner clothes. Washing jeans or bed sheets were the worst of the tasks as the drenched clothes almost often threatened to take our puny bodies along with them at every sling.

“Come, let’s talk to one of them,” I grab my camera and run down the stairs and into the alley with Manik. Frenzied tourists are a common sight in any part of India as the culture and tradition often offers a heady thrill, so I did not stand out with my curious looks.

One would easily be forgiven to think that all the men who were thrashing the clothes were following some invisible rhythm as they took aim, raised the cloth and pounded at the stone, almost at the same time.

Shiva Kumar stood thrashing a bedsheet a bit away from the sudsy small troughs that ran in a criss cross fashion across the area. He stops for a minute to give us a ‘what-the-hell-are- you-staring-at’ look.

Manik walks along to him and warbles in Marathi at an amazing speed and his unfriendly stare is immediately replaced by a warm grin.

He looks at his fellow men proudly at work and then speaks to Manik in a combination of English and Marathi. I tiptoe over to them to get a few answers.

Manik translates, “He says the clothes are soaked in soapy water, thrashed on the flogging stones, then tossed into huge vats of boiling starch and hung out to dry. Next they are ironed and piled into neat bundles. Each dhobi marks a unique symbol or character on garments belonging to a particular household. This is marked in black indelible ink to prevent it from being washed off. Since the dhobi charges are much lower than dry cleaners, they are popular with most households.”

“And why are there only men?”I ask.

Manik puts the question across to Shiva who in reply puffs up his chest and answers in a deep baritone voice and I understand his reply even before the translation.

“It is a man’s job, “says Manik anyway.

My eyebrows narrow for a debate but decide against it noticing his bulging biceps and his throbbing veins as they expand and contract to keep pace with his cloth thrashing. I have always had a deep sense of respect for physical prowess.

“The British made this area for the washermen years ago to wash and starch their clothes and now the people of this area do the washing for the entire city. Today almost 200 dhobis and their families work together in what has always been a hereditary occupation” continues Manik.

Shiva puts a hand across his chest and beams again when he looks squarely at me and says, “We no study but no mistake till today,”

I return the beaming smile.

Quite weary of quintessential indianness being touted to delight the average European tourist, I would have left the continent’s largest laundry alley as just that but my first contact with the city taught me all I needed to know about Mumbai: Everybody survives here and in good measure.