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Changing lifestyles: From dhobi to washing machine
Last week our faithful washing machine, after 20 years of tumbling, spinning and drying, stuttered to a final halt. Our household went into a spin, mourning the dear departed. The familiar khad khad alternating with whirring of the machine was sorely missed.

Till the new machine, hard wired with some intelligent circuitry arrived, our dhobi Suresh filled the void admiringly, and some more. Both Suresh and I are bahiyas from Uttar Pradesh, a tribe not very dear to Raj Thackeray. But dhobi Suresh is no ordinary laundry man. He is a poet and a chronicler of the urban scene. He keeps a daily diary of how life and attitudes in Mumbai are different from those of his village, near Sultanpur. A matriculate himself, he encouraged his wife to do her BA not once but twice. First in Sanskrit and next in Social Sciences! She now gives tuitions in the village.

Whenever Suresh comes home, he is less interested in counting the dirty linen. His eyes scout for Hindi books on my bookshelf. Once he spotted 'Chanakya' and borrowed it. During next few visits, he discussed Chankya's niti with us. Not only did he read it, but took it along to his village for his wife to read. The book came back to me after almost a year.

Before the UP elections, he came home to announce that he would be away for at least 4 months. When asked why, he informed that he had to do ghost writing of all the speeches of the local Samajwadi Party candidates. Also coin various campaign slogans and design the posters! He returned to Mumbai sooner, than we had expected. Crest fallen, he informed that his candidate had lost to the BJP. On my prodding, he confirmed that money and booze flowed freely during elections. No party was above it!

Suresh being the eldest among his siblings, ventured to eke out a living in Mumbai, while his wife back home looked after the in-laws. Whenever she gets beaten up by his siblings, he comes home to seek solace. He is not willing to be stern with his younger brothers and sisters. When we advise him to bring his wife and child to Mumbai, he counters with, 'Then who will look after my parents?' That is where the matters rest, except that his trips to the village have become more frequent.

Dhobis and dhobighats are a photographer's delight. Clicking the washer folk, when they swing the wet clothes and thrash them on stone slabs, is one favourite motif. Another is the colourful spread of multi hued saris drying along river banks and elsewhere. I have clicked these along the banks of many a river and even by the gurgling mountain brooks. Also from moving trains, when they trundled over river bridges!

In 1896 when Mark Twain visited India, the dhobis fascinated him too. He had never seen clothes being washed in this uniquely Indian style. In his travelogue he wrote, 'thedhoti is an ingenious device used to break rocks!'

In 2000, then US President Bill Clinton visited Mumbai he made a special request. While being driven from the airport to his hotel in south Mumbai, he asked for a stop at the Mahalaxmi Bridge, to click the huge and very colourful dhobighat, under the bridge. Another observer describing the same ghat wrote,'the outdoor laundry where 20,000 washer men and women thrash clothes to death against stone, to beat out all those curry stains'. With the advent of washing machines, the number of dhobis there has diminished.

Having grown up in Kanpur and Delhi, I have a special fondness for the dhobis and barbers. Mostly, they were from our own village. Apart from collecting clothes for washing and delivering the wash, they were the 'social media' of those days. We wondered, what new gossip of the neighbourhood they would impart. They kept our family abreast of the eligible boys and girls in town. Sometimes they brought an actual marriage proposal, for a boy or girl of our family. Their wives, the dhobans often acted as midwives and were adept at massages for the ladies and the new born babies.

Barbers, who came home, were also a source of great entertainment and information. They pouted out wisdom and advice to us, often laced with sher shayari. When he was President, George Bush Jr. famously said, 'There is one person who knows how to govern the country. I would invite him to join the White House, but he is too busy trimming hair in his saloon!'

Now the new washing machine firmly in place, confidently whirs and does most of the jobs Suresh did for us. But it cannot dole out native intelligence, which Suresh pouted when he told us, 'Saheb, such baat batayen! Agar is desh mein deshbhakt hain, to woh desh ki janta hai. Yeh, neta sab maha chor hain'! (To tell you the truth, if there are any deshbhakts in the country ? it's the common man. These netas are all big time thieves!')

Now that's really washing the dirty linen!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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