C. Shankar, Washerman

Shankar has finished half his morning’s washing; he’s been working since 6 a.m; when we meet at 9.30, he’s in a spotless dhoti and shirt. “I’ve been a washerman since I was 15 years old,” says Shankar. “My father was also one, in our village Madharapakkam”. Shankar started working there, but moved to Chennai after his marriage, to stay with his sister’s family in Mylapore. “They helped me become a member in the dhobighat near Vivekananda College; we have a stone reserved for our use, as well as a table, upstairs, for ironing’.

This system was, initially, a novelty for Shankar; back in his village, he recalls how his father loaded ‘azhukku’ (dirty clothes) on the back of a donkey, and went to the lake, to wash them. ‘My father used to carry around a basket lined with plantain leaves; the houses where he collected clothes gave him food in exchange for work. He was paid money only once a year, when his clients gave him Rs. 20 or Rs. 30 with vetrillai-paaku during Pongal. The more generous ones paid 4 or 8 annas for ironing. Somehow, we all managed then,” he reminisces.

In Chennai, Shankar got steady work from a hospital in Alwarpet. “Dr. Suganthy Rajagopalan helped me; her family and Dr. Lakshmi Kumari made sure that my children were educated,” he says. His sons, both graduates, are employed; his daughter, a high-school dropout, works around the house. Shankar’s workday extends from 6 a.m to 6 p.m., with a break in the afternoon. At the dhobighat, he first sorts out clothes and soaks them in a mixture of washing soda and a washing powder. “We use a detergent bar and diluted bleach water on stains and scrub them out. Whites are then dipped in a mix of laundry-blue and laundry-brightener; the clothes shine white after that,” he says. Shankar uses pearl-sago powder to starch cottons and steam (velaavi) to kill germs. “Traditionally, velaavi is also used to whiten. There’s a purpose-built steamer (a buried copper pot) at the dhobighat, filled with water. A fire is lit below; washed and wrung clothes are steamed on bamboo poles placed across the mouth of the pot.” Finally, the clothes aresun-dried and ironed.

For his efforts — which include hand-pumping about 100 pots of water everyday — he earns Rs. 30 for a saree, Rs.50 for a bedsheet. But since everybody now owns a washing machine, work, Shankar says, has come down; however, during festivals, jamakalams and curtains make their way to his washing pile. The monsoons are typically a difficult time for his business. “We still wash clothes with plastic covers over our heads, but how do we dry them?” he laughs.

Shankar visits his village now and then; but his life revolves around the dhobighat. “I did not study, and I ended up doing this; that’s why I’m grateful that my sons are educated. They tell me to retire when I want to; but I don’t think I can stay idle,” he says, adjusting the white shirts flapping on the line.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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