Dhobi Ghat, Mahalaxmi
When you get off Mahalaxmi station and take an immediate left, you will spot Maharashtra’s biggest manual laundromat.
Featured in films for its sheer colour and drama — it’s a place I’ve always longed to be, and finally I dropped by with the kids.
Even from afar one thing is clear; there is a clear division of labour. Hanging dry are slots of jeans, pink shirts, the whites, the yellows, fabrics in uniform checks; in the whites further divisions are made of pin- stripes and blocks.
We step down, and it is a universe where time seems to have stopped. Dhobi Ghat, we are told by one of the heads, is 38 acres of land, given by the state government. Each cement vat has been owned by generations who give the government Rs 400 per month. In return they get free water. They need to pay for electricity. We are with a bunch of photographers, all of who have unpacked their tripods and unleashed their cameras and who check each frame for the right light to emerge. Some of the washermen wash undaunted by the intrusion and some — mostly the young — pose.
We see what we have never seen before: cement slats filled to the knees with water, dhobis slapping clothes hard on rock surfaces built inside the slats, hard brushes, tough-looking soap bars and tubs filled with thick starch, drums filled with unidentifiable liquids. I see a thin man pulling white satin sheets, that I can identify as a table cover used for outdoor catering. The satin sheet is filled with oil stains. “How will you take it off?” I ask. “With chemical,” he says in a hoarse whisper, pointing to the drums.
On the fringe of Dhobi Ghat are homes where these washer folk live. We can see tiled flooring and utensils. The hands are hard and wrinkled. The rooftops of the homes are lined with nylon ropes that serve as space to dry the washing. The ropes are tightly entwined so that each garment is tucked in between the ropes, eliminating the use of clothespins, ingenuously.
“Each family has a set customer, and no family will step into another’s domain,” one dhobi tells us. Every unit is witness to that. Some families wash, others rub soap into every piece that goes into an industry-sized washing machine that has a washboard that resembles shredders. At some places clothes are being starched; others are carefully ironing the clothes.
But there are changes too. There are massive machines that have replaced traditional washing. Dryers, and washing machines that spin with efficient hum. The kids look wide-eyed. The dhobis don’t look like they want to encourage conversation.
Outside, they are selling datun. We head for Mahalaxmi station.
How to get there: The fastest way is to take a train to Mahalaxmi (Western railway). Turn right and you’re at Dhobi Ghat
Best time: Day time; avoid after dark.
What’s good: It’s a must-visit place to see how systems of management have been put into place for an ancient method of washing. The colours are a riot, and the process of washing, too beautiful to explain in words.
What’s not good: It’s not a museum. So, voyeurism is resented. No parking facilities or establishment luxuries. Best to visit in groups.
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