Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat

27 Oct 2013

Before it’s time to leave Mumbai, let’s take a moment to explore a location called Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. A branch off the main chapter, if you like.

The Dhobi Ghat, located in the Mahalaxmi neighbourhood in Mumbai, is a huge open air laundry place. It might seem chaotic at first glance; a patchy infrastructure covered by a vast number of cleaned garments hung to dry, among a gridwork of concrete wash pens.

But there is order hidden inside that chaos; considering that 7000 washermen work here every day, washing a total of 100 000 garments, there needs to be a system in place. Something that warrants a closer look.

The taxi left me on the adjacent bridge. The smell of detergent heavy in the air, I descend the stairs into the world’s largest outdoor laundry – the Dhobi Ghat.

27 Oct 2013

The stairs lead me down to a small courtyard, from where you can access the central grid of British colonial era wash pens of Dhobi Ghat. Washermen are busy at work despite the high noon sun beating down.

These washermen are traditionally called dhobis. Take note though: since the term is connected with the status of schedule castes, it is nowadays considered offensive.

The working day for the washermen isn’t an easy one; they spend up to 14 hours in those wash pens, thrashing clothes against the flogging stones. With humble salaries, most of them can’t afford sufficient protective gear; their hands and feet are constantly exposed to the alkaline solutions. You can imagine what that does to skin when subjected to them on a daily basis.

They take admirable pride in their work; the livelihood of approximately five thousand people depend on Dhobi Ghat, and the washermen doing this every day is what keeps that going – while waiting for a more automated future with washing machines and dryers to arrive.

Photo taken with permission.

Bowling ball
27 Oct 2013

Continuing my walk around the wash pens and the washermen at work, I came across a particular fellow in the common area. He wandered around with a sense of absent mindedness, carrying a canvas bag containing something that my unversed eye suggested was a concealed bowling ball.

Something about this piques my interest so I say hello and ask him how he’s doing. A short exchange later I cut to the chase and tell him about the funny thought about carrying a bowling ball around. He glances down at the bag, and asks if I want to see what’s there.

Yes, please.

So he puts the bag down, and there’s the softest thud and a slight rocking motion from the bowling ball finding its natural point of equilibrium. Before I realize that that’s not something bowling balls do, he nonchalantly picks up and presents the prime ingredient for his imminent lunch; a severed goat head.

I compliment him on acquiring fresh and nutritious materials and ask him if I can take a photo, to which he agrees. I wish him bon appétit when the time comes and bid him farewell as I continue the exploration, now a little less hungry than before.

Boiler room
27 Oct 2013

Seeking refuge from the scorching sun, I enter one of the doorways and find myself in a rudimentary boiler room. Thick, grimy smoke fills the air, making it even harder to see the unlit interior.

Sunlight seeps in through a torn roof. Bare concrete walls covered with soot. Barrels acting as improvised boilers, heating up the water used at the ghat. There doesn’t seem to be any means to exhaust the resulting smoke, explaining why it’s flowing unhindered into the room.

In the corner by the entrance, on a hardwood table, a washerman sleeps. Another proof of the demanding work and circumstances.

This room is one of the entry points to the chawllike network that is the main complex at Dhobi Ghat; a maze of corridors, living quarters and functional spaces essential to the laundry operations.

The ghat in general, and this area in particular, is off limits to the public. But you know how it goes; spot the man in charge, introduce yourself as a curious traveller, a bit of cash exchanges hands and voilá – access granted.

I try to get my bearings in the smoke and head deeper into the building complex.

The chawl
27 Oct 2013

The corridors lead me deeper into the chawl system. More improvised boilers line the passageways.

Back in 1890, when India was still a British imperial colony, 50 washerwomen got together and formed the first commune at Dhobi Ghat. While certain changes have been made, it has remained true to its original appearance and purpose.

The surroundings may be rough, and the infrastructure patchy, but for many this is home; more than 800 households are accommodated on two levels of the chawl system in the enclave.

27 Oct 2013

In this sombre space my eyes keep scanning up towards the gap in the ceiling; the only light source in the room in addition to the naked flames of the boiler furnaces lining the wall.

Strips of torn canvas hang on the old wood beams, perhaps awaiting their final disintegration in the next monsoon season, when a steady rainfall will punish them for months on end. If there are sufficient resources available the roof will be covered with plastic tarp to avoid flooding the interior.

The air is so thick with smoke from burning coal that the sizeable particles are visibly dancing in the light beam, unsure about where to move in the non-existent air circulation.

I snap out of it, and move on.

27 Oct 2013

The corridor opens up into another general area. There’s a soft ambience of busyness in the air; washermen sorting through the piles of laundry of the day, others enjoying a hard-earned break.

Around 5000 washermen work here every day. After long days at the washing pens they retire to the shanties that constitute the chawl system that is Dhobi Ghat.

They don’t take any particular notice of me. However, I don’t want to intrude or overstay my welcome; I retrace my steps back to the entrance.

Bang! You’re dead
27 Oct 2013

Back at the entrance, the tired washerman still rests.

On my way out, this kid walks by me; a slight mischievous grin on his face. As he passes he turns around, points a toy gun and shoots.

Bang, you’re dead.

That rapscallion.

Even here, among dilapitated surroundings, people worn down by 14 hour work shifts and air filled with soot from burning furnaces, there is room for kids to play.

With that sliver of solace in mind, I bid farewell to Dhobi Ghat.

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