Dhobi Ghat is an oddly reassuring spectacle. After a long day of work in front of computers in offices, it is quite a pleasure to look at people flexing their muscles at work, rhythmically thumping clothes against stone.
And talking to them is like entering a closed world with its own concerns and pleasures. Dhobi Ghat is also an astonishing sight. Clothes are hung on every available space, smoke rises from asbestos roofs cantilevered from the wall separating the ghat from Mahalaxmi station. Behind the stones set in neat perpendicular rows, you can see the tenements in which the dhobis live.
There is no pathway between the stones and I wonder how people moved around in the ghat. I decide to find out.
I enter the ghat via an arch that looks antique. And I leap out of the way as a cycle carrying twice its acceptable load of clothes hurtles towards me. The dhobi grins slightly and swerves as Anil Kanaujia watches, amused.
Kanaujia is one of four brothers who started out in the ghat but moved out to set up an independent business washing and dyeing clothes just outside the ghat. He is more than willing to share his knowledge, collected over decades.
There are a total of 731 stones in the ghat, he tells me, and each stone can support several families. Some families barely make Rs. 10,000 a month, others can rake in twice that figure. Some families mainly work the neighbourhoods, going from door to door, collecting dirty clothes, while others have contracts with garment stores. The next time you look at a set of spanking new clothes in a clothing store, do not dismiss the possibility that it was slammed on a stone in Dhobi Ghat. Some washermen take nothing but denim jeans, and give them the faded stonewash look so important to a tough looking pair of jeans.
Under the cover of the overpowering smell of soap, washermen wipe suds off their ankles and use long poles to press clothes into huge buckets that look more like outsize beer barrels sliced in half. Water runs off the gutters next to the stones and smoke rises from pockets in the ghat that you can’t see from the entrance.
Ram Achal (38), the only carpenter at the ghat, mends the 500-odd buckets and wooden imp-lements here and is a general odd-job man. Sitting in his space in a little corridor between two rows of stones, he talks about how the ghat is now famous as a heritage sight and tourist spot, about the relatively new washing machines and driers that are replacing the stones.
And he talks of the people who work and live here. People like Vinod Kumar (28), who mentions that he runs a catering business, but thinks of the ghat as home; he was born and brought up here.
Kumar sleeps in a small nook in a sheltered corridor of the ghat. He pulls out his visiting card, which lists his phone number. The ghat is quite a maze, it is unlikely anyone can find their way into his nook, he explains; hence the phone number. Kumar’s bedroom is right next to the iron barrels in which clothes are soaked in chemicals to take out the more stubborn stains.
It’s getting dark, and the dhobis are nearly done with the washing. Some are leaving to deliver their loads. I ask them if they can show me the way to Mahalaxmi station. As we walk up to the platform, they start talking about Telugu films.
Why Telugu, I ask Sumeet Kanaujia (23), a rangy youth with a mischievous grin. “Telugu heroes are the best,” he replies, and rattles off the names of Telugu superstars, led by Chiranjeevi and Junior NTR.
I think to myself, are these washermen Telugu? “No, we just like films with action,” they tell me. Kanaujia adds, “Most of us are from Uttar Pradesh and almost everybody is named Kanaujia here.”
I make a mental note to ask the family dhobi his surname the next time he comes over.
This weekly column explores the city’s varied low-cost pleasures