The ‘other’ face of Mumbai is a multi-part series of all those places that though little spoken about, are (in)famous and form the integral part of Mumbai. The silence about these places to me seems like an attempt of the childish mind – that if not spoken they shall disappear. Sadly, the reality is different. Thus, when it exists I sought to explore it, in my own way. The other parts of the series can be read here , here and here.

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Sometime’s I wonder what else is left to be discovered in this land I call my own which won’t take my breath away? A LOT I guess. While we are busy counting the “big” things from this country that makes it to the list of wonders, somewhere visiting places like the Dhobi Ghat makes me wonder, if only those list makers knew how much they are leaving out.

On a personal level I can be the perfect house care taker – however you need to give me a washing machine to agree to take care of the house. I HATE washing clothes. I still remember the law school days when all friends would tag their bucket laden with soiled clothes to the common washroom and then one of us would set up a laptop on a chair, put on a playlist and then merrily create our own dhobi ghaat while washing and scrubbing clothes. If not for the jabber with the friends and the fear of losing out on gossip, trust me I would have never washed my own clothes! Then there were episodes of lonely washing which often resulted in soaking the clothes a bit too long (maximum a friend did was over an entire summer vacation) and then discovering what melting of the cloth really meant in reality!

To cut short – I was not looking forward to visit Dhobi Ghaat, washing lines have never fascinated me. It was however a thought that I think made Mumba Devi chuckle and say “silly girl, wait till you land there“. Ah well, let’s say she stood by her words. The world’s largest open air laundry simply took my breath away! It rained heavily as I stood there, a few urchins surrounded me to sell their “hand-made bags” which I knew have been picked up from Colaba market at one tenth of the price that was being quoted by them – yet nothing seem to affect me as I stood before lines and lines of strung cloths.

Consisting of 800 separate cubicles, known as wash pens – the washing area is like a mini maze. With over 10,000 washermen sharing those 800 pens, little needs to be told about the space crunch. The pens are square in nature and each one has a flogging stone attached to it. The pens are shared by the washermen on a shift basis and at each point of time there are almost 3 washermen at work in one pen – one would be soaking/ scrubbing or do the preliminary sorting, one would be washing by the flogging stone and the other would be wringing and putting out his lot to dry. All that I saw that day was green for it was the “hospital day” – from the Lilavati’s of the city to the unrecognized clinic all hospital clothes are washed here – yes the sanitized dream just crashed and I heard it break into sever bubbles of ‘sigh’!

There are other color coordinated days too – white, red and blues on different lines do make up a rainbow I imagine. Set up in 1840 to clean the “soiled clothes” of the Babus this area till independence was known as the “dirty line of the soldiers”. Ironical but strange that we assume a clean attire from an area we tag as “dirty”. It’s yet another hypocrisy the British bestowed on us.

The washer men folk consist of men and women – however the latter constitutes less than 2% of the population there. They earn anything between Rs. 2 to Rs. 10 per piece of cloth and have to pay a monthly rent of Rs. 300 to the Government for the usage of the pens.

The area around the pens are surrounded by little huts which serve as their resident quarters. The condition of them are not only deplorable but will also make you think if there is even enough space for 10 men who share one hut to even breathe leave aside stay. I asked one of them of their life there – he gave me a blank look and replied that there’s no life only work. Life was what he had left behind in his village when we decided to come and work in this city of dreams. Almost 75% of the men who work there are migrant workers who came to Mumbai with the dreams of making it big. By the time they realized the truth of the economy this city survives on, they were already neck-deep in debt and thus couldn’t go back. The in human living conditions prevents them from bringing their families to stay here. Thus, the one month leave in the year is all that keeps them going.

He told me how they hate rains, for while the entire city rejoices to them it is losing out on payments if they cannot deliver crisp washed clothes on time. I have always been fascinated by the way they keep a track of the clothes and their accounts. When I shared this with him he just smiled and told me the other side of how majority of them are illiterate and rely on the basic knowledge of money matters and color coding to keep their business running. He shared how in his early days he thought all rich ‘memsahibs’ were too good to cheat him, but later realized that he has been paid lesser than he deserved more than once.

Ironically yesterday I picked up a collection of short stories by the great Urdu novelist (vernacular reading is something I take pride in), Sahadat Hasan Manto the first story there, Ram Khilawan, simply transported me back to Dhobi Ghaat as I read it. The story is all about a Hindu washer man befriending a Muslim man, standing by his bad times, being grateful when the latter’s wife saved his life and then how he was instrumental is saving the man from the riot mob. It is an intense story of human emotions, of how simple relations shape to be turning points of life and how a character who despite being omnipresent in all our lives has never assumed importance till we read a story like this.

The talk with the Dhobi, his pride in his workstation being a part of Bollywood movies, his irritation at their plight being now used as a part of slum tourism left me with confused emotions as I left the place and made my way to Dharavi. I realized that the myriad of take aways and my own ignorance about such an integral part of the city left me too impacted to even think of an emotion that could describe my feelings.

In the background of the template I called my mind I recalled a poem I had learnt in my kindergarten days –

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Mumbai Mondays is all about seeing Mumbai and its surroundings through my eyes. It’s my take to introduce you to a city and its surroundings which I love, as I see it – alone and often with friends (we call ourselves the Mumbai Mad Caps). It’s a thread that goes live every Monday. I cover places randomly and welcome suggestions too. You can find more posts about Mumbai Mondays here.

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