The air is hot and humid. Sweat is trickling down my spine and my sandals draw water. I sneak through a narrow passage to the sound of clapping feet running back and forth. Loud voices come with violent outbursts and I get a feeling of being in the way. Large knots of dirty clothes hang heavily over the shoulders of the men, and every now and then I see a woman with a knot on her head. We are visiting an open-air laundry in Colaba, in the south of Mumbai. A dhobi ghat.
A little further north, Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat is still one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, although the laundry has been predicted to close for many years. The area is attractive to large developers who believe this type of laundry belongs to the past.
The laundry was established in 1890 and has been presented in The Guinness Book of Records (2011) as the world’s largest open-air laundry. From the large bridge at Mahalaxmi Railway Station you get a good overview of a damp and crawling ‘anthill’ where, at the most and once, close to a thousand washermen, called dhobis, simultaneously earned a living.
Dirty clothes are primarily delivered from hotels and hospitals. The area is divided into wash pens, each fitted with its own flogging stone. It might not be the place where I’d send my summer dress.
The dhobis have to pay rent for each washing pen to the Mumbai authorities. In a society still plagued by corruption, they must expect to be exposed to money collectors who ask for bribes in order to renew leases on behalf of the authorities.
The profession of a dhobi is hard and passed down from generation to generation. Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat spans many blocks and is seen as urban slum. Here, the dhobis live with their families in very poor conditions, and child labour is not uncommon. After all, many are born into the profession.
Dhobi ghat in the south
We chose to visit a smaller and more unknown dhobi ghat in Colaba, the far south of Mumbai. Here you can get closer, and walk unnoticed between busy men, giggling children and the ubiquitous stray dogs. Although a dhobi ghat is characterized by manual labour, there are a few large electrically powered centrifuges under cover.
Large, white or colourful sheets mixed with worn jeans hang to dry along the walls or on large racks on the roofs of surrounding buildings. You probably have to be a bit of an acrobat to get the laundry hung to dry! Flats, one of top of the other, painted in India’s candy colors, surround parts of the laundry and lighten up an otherwise grey area.
It is the middle of the day and the activity is low. Most of the work takes place early in the morning so that washing can hang to dry throughout the day. Here, there is no computer or app that registers washing in and out, but a coding system that keeps track of customers and laundry. We notice how some of the men soap themselves and shower with water from a bucket. A few minutes of respite breaks up a tough daily life – mostly about soap and water anyway.
WHERE: Dhobi Ghat off Capt. Prakash Petha Marg, Colaba