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Life at a dhobi ghat

 G. Venu washing clothes at Arattukadavu

G. Venu washing clothes at Arattukadavu

It’s a hot Sunday morning and Arattukadavu is more or less deserted as we walk down the steep and narrow concrete road leading to this part of the bank of the Karamana river. Dozens of clothes lines, strung all along the bank, are yet to be filled up with clothes.

Standing knee-deep in the dark water of the river is 39-year-old Kannappan, beating a dhoti on a flogging stone. He rinses the cloth, wrings it and throws it on to a pile of damp clothes on the steps leading to the river. In the backyard of his house, G. Venu is stirring something in a round aluminium vessel on an open hearth. In the meantime, Baby is soaking clothes in a huge aluminium vessel filled with a white liquid, which, we are told, is to remove tough stains.

The trio has been working since 5 am. They are among the handful of dhobis who regularly wash the clothes at this ghat. Once, this was the hub of a thriving business, as proved by the rows of flogging stones neatly laid out on the bank of the river. But the profession seems to have lost its shine.

 G. Venu at the dhobi ghat at Arattukadavu

G. Venu at the dhobi ghat at Arattukadavu

According to septuagenarian G. Krishnankutty, there was a time when at least 50 dhobis used to be at the ghat every day to wash the clothes. “My father and my forefathers did this work and so I followed suit. I used to have a lot of celebrities and politicians as clients. But after a point, there was a shortage of labour and I stopped taking those orders. Now, only three or four families in this area still pursue this job,” says Krishnankutty, a veteran of more than 50 years in his profession.

While Kannappan followed in his father’s footsteps, Baby became a washer woman to support her family. At 70, she appears too frail to be doing this. “I am finding it difficult to stand in the water for long to wash the clothes, but I will work as long as I can. I have regular customers in Manacaud area. I take an rickshaw, collect the clothes, wash them here and dry them at a place near my house. I have kept a labourer to iron the clothes. I personally deliver them to my clients,” she says.

Laborious process

Washing the dirt away is a laborious process. The clothes are soaked in a mix of washing powder, washing soda and soap oil for many hours. At times, they are left to soak overnight. The clothes are then beaten on the flogging stone and those with stains and moulds are soaked in a mix of baking soda and bleaching water.

“You shouldn’t keep dhotis with cotton or silk zari in this mix for long as that will take away their shine,” says Venu, Krishnankutty’s younger brother, who has some high-profile names from the film and television industry as his clients.

These clothes are beaten again on the flogging stone and washed in the river. Since the river isn’t clean any more, the clothes are rinsed thoroughly in tap water again before they go through the starching or bluing process. These are then left to dry on the clothes lines.

“We use sago for starching. It is soaked in water for some time and then put into boiling water and cooked for at least half an hour. The clients are very particular that the dhoti should be stiff. We add a drop of perfume as well when we starch the clothes,” explains Venu.

 Clothes left to dry at the dhobi ghat at Arattukadavu

Clothes left to dry at the dhobi ghat at Arattukadavu

They use a special colour to retain the cotton cream colour (kaavi) of the dhotis. And if it is white, the right amount of laundry blue and blue ink should do the trick. The rates start at ₹40 and can go up to Rs 80 or Rs 100, especially for silk saris.

Rain a dampener

Their schedule goes for a toss when it rains. Although the Corporation has constructed a shed on the bank itself where they can dry the clothes, that would be of little use when the river overflows, flooding the flogging stones and the bank itself. Some then depend on dry cleaning centres to dry the clothes.

This is not the only ghat in the city. There are such places in Karamana and Jagathy in the city. The dhobis say they have come to terms with the fact that they are no match for machine-operated laundry service centres that have mushroomed in the city. “Still, many old-timers prefer us, and as long as they are there, we will keep working,” says Kannappan.

A close encounter with the people and places in the city


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Printable version | May 29, 2022 5:40:10 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/life-at-a-dhobi-ghat/article23668700.ece