Four generations of washermen had eked out their livelihood from Muthalakkulam. The scenario may change soon
At the Muthalakkulam dhobi ghat, a tradition is nearing an end as a handful of washermen families fight a hopeless battle against price hike and generational change.
Rows of white sheets and pillow covers from lodges and hotels around the city are hung to dry on clotheslines. Nearby, men and women wordlessly wash clothes heaped nearby, beating them on the washing stone, plunging them into buckets of water, wringing them dry and scurrying to the lines to hang them. There is a sense of quiet urgency in the air.
For four generations, the Muthalakkulam ground and its three water wells have been witnesses to the daily battle of the washermen against the vagaries of nature. “Rain or shine, the washerman has to work. We have to finish washing and drying the clothes when the sun is still up. There is not a moment to lose here,” Rajan P., a third-generation member of the community, said.
The families claim that their association with the ground dates back to the British era when the dhobis used to serve their colonial masters. “I remember my father telling me a story of how my grandpa met a British gentleman for the first time. My grandpa went to the Englishman’s house to take clothes for washing. The gentleman was sitting outside and he asked, in English, to his sepoy who my grandfather was. My grandpa, before the sepoy could reply, said ‘I am a dhobi, sir’. You see, he knew English,” Mr. Rajan, in his seventies, said.
“But gone are those glory days when the dhobi could earn well from his profession. Now even our children don’t wish to take up this job. My son is a painter. He earns Rs.550 a day. I don’t blame him for not choosing my way of life,” Unni K. said.
With hardly around 50 families left, the business is slowly drying up. To make matters worse, the families are constantly threatened by the on-and-off plans by the local authorities to use the Muthalakkulam grounds for other purposes, from shopping malls to car parks.
“Our day starts at 4 a.m. when we go around collecting dirty laundry from the lodges. We get around Rs.3 per bed sheet. Earlier each of us used to get an average 60 sheets. But now big hotels have their own laundry and dry cleaning facility. Nowadays, we hardly get around 25 bed sheets a day,” Mr. Unni said.
What they earn a day is hardly enough to pay for the daily expenses of soap, washing soda and transportation expenses.
“For 20 years, I have been washing other people’s clothes. I still live in a one-room house the Corporation built me. My children are studying. I have no security and no benefits for the work I do,” Kanakam says as she folds the washed clothes atop the open-air stage at the Muthalakkulam ground.