Mumbai – Inside Dhobie Ghat

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Mumbai – Inside Dhobi Ghat
It took me more than one hour to understand that it’s worth taking it slow when entering the world’s biggest open air laundry.
Coming in from a crowded-signature-Indian-train-ride, all hyped, it’s just the wrong state of mind to be in and amongst all the places in India, for once I instantly had the feeling that I wasn’t welcome here.

Inside Dhobi Ghat with its wet, slippery and narrow corridors, you want to walk around in slow, predictable movements to not be in the way. Try to blend in and don’t criss-cross people’s ways. Be aware of your surrounding so you can adapt. Acknowledge and respect the people of Dhobi Ghat and take yourself out of the picture as much as possible is what I’ve learned in a nutshell.

The “Laundry men” or “Dhobies” are proud, vigilant people, who take their work seriously and seem uncomfortable or impatient with intruders, which in turn made me uncomfortable. I was intimidated due to their stern demeanour and almost angry attitude, their hard, weathered faces, their strong arms and hands, their inability to produce anything that would resemble a smile and honestly, I was surprised about this, as the area is supposed to be frequently visited by foreigners, even though I haven’t seen any.

I have asked a local man to be my guide for 150 rupees ($2) to learn about this place, but mainly to not attract all the stares and feel less alone in this place.
It didn’t help. I really wished Eva was with me. Having a woman on your side reduces any perceived threat level one emits and often creates a different atmosphere altogether.

The guide however taught me a lot about the place, its history, the Dhobies and what they struggle with. He had good English skills, but the information that I missed or didn’t understand, I looked up afterwards to fill in the blanks.

The Dhobies are people representing the “Washerman caste” and transfer their skills to the next generation and the generation after that. They have mostly come from surrounding villages and have stood all their lives in India’s blistering heat, in soapy, chemical rich water, with horrible effects to their feet and hands and whatever chemicals they breathe in all day.

Most of Mumbai’s laundry is collected in Dhobi Ghat for cleaning. Hotels, hospitals, flats and residential high rises, the Indian Railway Company, shops and more,- all are using Dhobi Ghat, the laundry colony.

Each Dhobie owns a concrete wash pen, and each pen is fitted with a flogging stone. After they scrub and soak the laundry, they literally flog the shit (or dirt) out of it, then dry, iron, sort and deliver every article of clothing. It’s very hard work.

My Guide told me that despite the huge turnover of 1 million clothes per day, nothing ever gets lost in Dhobi Ghat. I found this amazing, considering we in the west don’t manage to keep our socks together while having a turnover of maybe 20 clothes per week.
He also pointed out some small surveillance cameras that have been installed all over the place as big companies, who are using the service, want to be sure their property is safe.

According to Vocativ.com, more than 730 Dhobies and their families live and work in the laundry colony and the area extends across several blocks.

The last thing these people see before they fall asleep at night is laundry and it is the first thing they see when they wake up.
And this all their lives.
There is almost no reason to leave the colony, with its adjacent market, nearby doctors and I have seen hairdressers either living in, or coming into the colony.

According to my guide, children are born in the colony, grow up, marry, teach their own children and grow old, amongst harsh detergents and laundry, that occupies every possible inch of space.

The few families who managed to save enough money over the years invest in an industrial scale washing machine however, this is rare. Most of the washing is done by hand and, as the “Washerman” caste name suggests, is done by men.

The clean clothing is also ironed in Dhobi Ghat and children as young as 10 or 12 can be seen folding and packing the numbered clothes meticulously.

Nothing ever gets lost in Dhobi Ghat". Clothes are marked on the inside with for example the hotel name and room number.
“Nothing ever gets lost in Dhobi Ghat”. Clothes are marked on the inside with for example the hotel name and room number.

After about one hour my tour ended. I decided to get back into the colony, determined to get some better pictures out of my visit. During the tour, I thought I would pursue a new strategy, to take it slow, to sit down, put the camera away and just watch for a start.

Watch how the Dhobies interact with the materials and textiles in measured, calculated movements that seemed so natural to them and analysing the various clothes with a distinctly expert glance.

This worked a lot better. Sitting there instead of rushing around allowed people to approach me, subtle at first with a barely noticeable wiggle of the head, then a reluctant “kind of smile”, then a hand reaches out for a limp handshake, then, during their break, chai tea was offered and I found that despite their busy schedule, they had as many questions for me as I had for them.

The severe language barrier was an issue but I think they appreciated the effort more than the information they got, as the rhythm of our conversation didn’t suggest they understood most of what I was saying.
But still, once they felt comfortable with me, I felt more comfortable in return, dared to roam around more freely, getting a bit closer to people, talking to them and taking pictures without any issues.
Their stern demeanour never faded, but the work they are doing is hard, it would be difficult for anyone to produce a smile. They seem incredibly honest, simple and straight forward people and it shows in their faces.
They simply don’t fake smiles for tourists.

A Dhobie inside his wash pit in Mumbai's Dhobi Ghat.

Harsh elements and more is what they are constantly fighting with:
The heat, the chemicals, the always wet feet, the washing, the stitching, the drying, the ironing, the sorting, the fixing, the folding, the packing, the delivering, the rough sleep and
Yes, some look pissed off, but most westerners look pissed off when they have to open Outlook.

My visit was in the early afternoon and after some more tea, they advised me to come back the next day at 6am, when most of the work starts.
After hours of tension, being “invited” the next day felt like the nicest thing. Between 6am and 9am was the most interesting time they said, as I could see the start of a Dhobie’s day.

I was there the next day, had morning tea amongst teeth brushing, sleepy looking Dhobies while the sun slowly rose and I was generally trying to get myself out of the picture and out of the way.

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