For the last 25 years, H. Govindaraju, popularly known as Govinda, has been on his feet, standing continuously for eight to 10 hours a day, doing what he knows best — ironing clothes. Standing in the damp dingy basement of an apartment, where his wooden ironing table stands, he picks the seven-kg hot coal-iron and begins the mechanical routine of flip, press, iron, turn, fold, iron, fold. He spends the first half hour after arrival, waiting for the coals to catch fire and heat up. The arm he recently injured in an accident gives him a nasty reminder of how important his “tool” is in his profession.
He’s constantly worrying about competition, other istri-wallahs. While he rested for almost six months intermittently, to recover from the arm injury, other iron men from the locality slowly started taking over his customers. “Many of the boys I’ve trained now run their own independent business, and have become my competitors!” he rues.
“I fix certain days for certain apartments, or independent homes, and collect the clothes first. People also call on my mobile sometimes if they have clothes for ironing on other days.” Then by nightfall, he has to deliver the ironed clothes back.
A resident of Kurubarahalli, he travels six kilometres to Malleswaram about five days in a week to iron at four apartments. “Malleswaram has many apartments, which means more customers. In Kurubarahalli, it’s mostly independent homes,” he explains. The remaining days he’s at Infantry Road in another apartment.
Govinda’s father ironed clothes at the Air Force Station in Jalahalli for almost 50 years; that’s where he picked up the trade from his father after finishing his SSLC.
Originally from Gollahalli, then on the outskirts of Bangalore, the family’s story is much like that of many others who owned agricultural land, but moved into the city when they couldn’t bear the cost of agriculture. “We were growing ragi. But there was no borewell; it would cost at least three lakh to get one. Moreover it was difficult to get labour. We had three cows, and they all died from negligence, we didn’t have money for their insurance, so we lost everything.” One of his brothers does washing and ironing at a resort, one runs a goods vehicle; his younger brother helped him a few months but didn’t like it, so he joined “a proper job where you get salary, ESI, increments”.
He invests Rs. 100 everyday to buy the ijjalu (coal), though he says electricity works out cheaper, at about Rs. 30 a day. He makes about Rs. 400 a day. “But apartments hesitate to give me an electric connection; they say ‘as it is we are offering you free space in the basement’. Only one apartment, Chitrakoota, where I have been working 20 years, has been generous to give me an electric plug-point.”
Govinda has seen the city grow and spread, and its citizens multiply. What irks him most is growing home rents, which he struggles to pay, while putting his three daughters through an English-medium school. “I want my kids to study well,” he offers, beginning to tackle the day’s bundle of clothes.