PUNE: casts a glance skywards as the darkening clouds gather over the horizon. Then he makes a dash for the nearest clothesline. “All my effort over the past few days will go to waste if it starts pouring now. Even the smallest of drops can ruin the clothes,” he says.
Rains are a bother for the city’s traditional washer men who work outdoors, beating lengths of linen against the stone, wringing them, steaming them and putting them out to dry.
“We do not have a shed here where we can let the clothes out to dry. So every time there is a slightest hint of rain, we have to quickly take the clothes off the line and then hang them out to dry again, once the sky clears up. It is a tedious work,” says Pardesi, among the few traditional washer men who have been hand-cleaning the city‘s dirty clothes at for generations.
Around 35 to 40 dhobis (both men and women) work out of here from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, washing the dirty linen of Pune‘s hotels, hospitals, laundries and other places.
But their numbers have dwindled over the years. “Earlier, around 80 people used to work here. Today, only a few want to take up a job that involves hard work and little money,” says Raju’s brother Manohar, who walked in his father’s footsteps and became a washer man nearly half a century ago.
Most of the washer men have been working here for three-four generations and live in tenements close by.
The dhobi ghat came into existence nearly 150 years ago mainly to cater to British officers. Today, Z.V.M. Unani Medical College & Hospital, Cantonment Hospital and Kering Hospital, apart from the nearby hotels and the Turf Club form the bulk of customers.
But the washer men get fewer clothes from individual homes. Ubiquitous presence of washing machines has cut into their income.
“Even a few years back, each one of us used to wash around 250 to 300 clothes a day. On some days, we even used to wash 500 clothes. Nowadays, we wash maximum of 50 to 60 clothes,” says Raju.
Despite the dwindling income, each of the washer man pays a rent of Rs 500 to the Cantonment Board for using the wash stones set up during the British rule. “Earlier, the rent was Rs 20-Rs 25 per stone but it has increased lately. However, apart from supplying water from 11 am to 2 pm, the Cantonment Board does not provide any other facilities to us. We do not get water in the evening. So, we are forced to complete all the work in the morning,” he says.
The dhobis here dunk clothes overnight in a mixture of bleaching powder, caustic soda, washing soda and detergent before they are vigorously scrubbed, thrashed against a concrete stone and washed the next morning in clear water.
But the process does not end here. They are again dipped in acid and soaked in starched water before they are washed again. “Only then, they become spotlessly clean,” says Manohar.
But (60), one among the 20-odd washerwoman here, says that the clothes available nowadays cannot withstand the rigours of earlier years when they used to be dipped in boiling water to rid them of dirt. “Most clothes today are of terry cotton material and are delicate. They have to be washed carefully. Otherwise, the colour will fade,” she says.
Around 7 km away at in Shaniwar Peth, Vijay Dalvi (65) is hard at work, swinging and flogging trousers on concrete slabs. He has to wash a couple of clothes more before he can call it a day. But not before he has dried, ironed the clothes and delivered them to the customers’ homes. His job has become easier after a few washer men pooled in money and brought a few handheld dryers costing Rs 18,000 each.
“Earlier, our hands and wrists used to pain a lot from rinsing heavier loads of curtains, bed covers and towels. Now, dryers have made our job easier,” says Dalvi, who used to work on the bank of Mutha river, near Garware Bridge, before the water there became dirty and shifted to Omkareshwar Dhobi Ghat along with a few other washer men.
The has built 26 wash stones for the dhobis at Omkareshwar Dhobi Ghat. But there are no other facilities. “We don’t even have a toilet. Neither is there a shade to take shelter from scorching sun or rain,” he says.
Dalvi works every day from 8am to about 6 in the evening. For all his hard work, he earns a paltry Rs 15 for every shirt or trouser he cleans.
“Now almost everybody has a washing machine at home. If we ask customers to pay us more, they tell us that they can do the work themselves. What can we do,” he asks.
Dwindling fortunes have taken the younger generations away from the family business. “My children work as recovery agents with a finance company and make much more money than I do. They don‘t want to wash clothes all their life like me,” says Raju Pardesi.
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