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Disappearing dhobi khana

The `dhobi khana' at Fort Kochi was once throbbing with activity. Today, a shadow of its former self, it presents a picture of slow extinction. TANYA ABRAHAM on the plight of the few washermen who carry on with the trade.

TUCKED AWAY in a corner of the Veli maidan in Fort Kochi, a group of washer folk continues to toil as they have done for more than half a century. Their ancestry can barely be traced except for a few who believe they belong to some remote village in Tamil Nadu, while others are hardly aware of a world outside Fort Kochi. Yet, with undaunted enthusiasm they narrate an old story that has been passed down the generations.

"The first dhobi khana was under the Madras Presidency and was situated a couple of yards from here, they say. The entire laundry of the `Sayus' were done there", says Srinivas, the caretaker of the dhobi khana.

As the story goes, the dhobis later shifted to the maidan, which at the time was beset with over 20 ponds, an arena where news was exchanged amidst the washing and drying.

Thirty years after Independence, on the December 9 in 1975, the Corporation of Cochin along with GCDA incorporated the dhobi khana as a `sangam' or a society, providing specific and more convenient areas for washing, drying and ironing of clothes for almost the whole of Cochin.

Today, at the dhobi khana, lungi clad men hover around busily. A narrow path way leads to an open shed where crisp white sheets and colourful garbs are being ironed and stacked with deft precision at a speed that would put any home-maker to shame. On the other side of the hallway, clothes continue to be washed in concrete water tubs hired on a daily or weekly basis.

"The tubs can be hired for Rs.5 per piece and usually the water would last us a day or two where as the current charges are paid on an hourly basis and according to the rate fixed", explains Srinivas, as he quickly pens down the names of those who had hired the tubs for the day.

The dhobi khana follows an established pattern that has been charily adhered to ever since its inception, where each member is separate from the other with a clear demarcation maintained between what is earned and the expenses individually incurred.

"Some of us have larger work contracts with hospitals, the port trust, ships and government guest houses while others are specifically dhobis who go from house to house. Each piece is marked and a record of the number of clothing is kept in individual books for easy access, making sure that the account tallies at the end of the day", explains the caretaker.

The system calls for trust and accommodation causing it to become an inextricable part of the lives of its members. "Some of us have more income from more work and thus can't help but aid those who have less. For example, some us who have been here long enough have store rooms in our names, which we hire from the society for Rs.125 per year. We let these out to those who need them", explains 62-year-old Barini.

However, most of the dhobis are of the opinion that this is a dying occupation that requires intense hard work and provides poor returns. They complain of the disinterest on the part of the government and the option of modern technology that are causing this work to disappear.

"The people who initiated this society cared for us, today nobody cares. We have approached the government, a number of times, to help us, by reducing the electricity rate but to no avail" they explain. "Now, the Corporation of Cochin has promised to provide shutters for our shed to prevent the rain from coming in and we hope at least that will come through. The truth is that we can barely take home enough for a decent life and the rainy season makes things worse. Work that can be done in two days takes four days. However, we do have a job and are not unemployed", they say dejectedly

Many of the dhobis who worked at the khana have left or are unable to continue with the strenuous toil. The Dhobi Street that once housed more than 75 families appears deserted with just a couple of them remaining.

The question is, will this section of society become a topic of the past?

Will starched garments on the clothesline, fluttering in the breeze, on the Veli maidan become mere shadows in the hot sun?

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