How Chennai’s washermen are coping with water scarcity

The water scarcity has hit the washermen community hard

The water scarcity has hit the washermen community hard

Thud, whistle, splash, thud, whistle, splash. It’s a little before 6 am, at Satchi Street in Purasaiwalkam. The dhobi khana has just begun whirring into motion. Its sister branch at Chetpet is bigger and more famous, but the 115-year-old Purasaiwalkam dhobi khana (public laundry) holds out on its own. Over 100 families find their means of livelihood here, washing, drying and ironing clothes — mostly bedsheets, towels, and curtains from hotels and hospitals.

We step over rivulets of foam to go inside the dhobi khana where 42-year-old Rani Kumar is at work. Wisps of hair escaping from the bandanna on her head, the sleeves of her checked shirt rolled up to her elbows, Rani is surrounded by bundles of clothes, a couple of soaps and detergent in old plastic water bottles.

An old Chiranjeevi song playing on her phone keeps her company as she works. In huge arcs, she raises the coiled wet clothes and thwacks them onto a slab. Each time, the water spirals above and lands on her, as well as on to the slab in front, as if splattered from the brush of a painter. Every thwack is accompanied by a whistle. “It helps me maintain a rhythm, and work faster,” she explains. Her words find an echo in the 70-odd washermen and women around her who set their beats with grunts and shushes of their own.

From a bird’s eye view, the area is a network of repeating square grids, spread over five grounds. A criss-cross of clotheslines hangs overhead. One washer occupies one grid, his cubicle, and the rows of grids are separated by drains. A single cubicle contains two slabs to wash clothes and two mini tanks to hold water. These tanks are filled with water collected from the main tank at the centre of the dhobi khana .

But there lies the problem. “Since the past-three four months, the tank has been dry,” G Suresh, one of the washermen, informs us.

Juggling resources

“We have four borewells in and around this region, so we need to pump out water from outside, or wait for the Metrowater tankers to collect enough water in pots, that we bring inside the khana ,” explains Suresh. Most of the workers at Purasaiwalkam dhobi khana live in the adjacent Housing Board quarters. Saraswathy Srinivasan, also a resident of the quarters, stands at the hand pump with her sister-in-law. “We get water at the pumps for the morning hours,” she says, as her sister-in-law fills up the plastic pots. Saraswathy and her husband carry five pots, one by one, inside the dhobi khana before they start their daily work.

In all families, every member helps out with this job: collecting the clothes, bringing in pots of water, washing, drying, ironing and delivering. R Aiyyappan however, works alone; his wife works at a plastic factory. “I used to be a washerman, but had to quit and take up ironing with a private company instead. The money wasn’t bad, I actually earn ₹500 lesser than what I used to. But with the on-going crisis, you always need someone to help with bringing in water. I couldn’t do everything on my own, so I had to leave,” he says.

R Govindan, meanwhile, does have the support of his wife, who also works as a washerwoman here. However, they have their own set of complaints. “Our income has halved ever since the water scarcity,” he says. “We have to cut down on the number of clothes we collect because water is limited. Moreover, with all the extra effort, the number of clothes we can wash in a given time is also lesser. Earlier, we’d work only mornings, from 5 to 10 am, now it stretches to afternoons.”

Breaking traditions

As Rani finishes her tea break, her teenage daughter joins her, bringing in a fresh batch of clothes. “My grandmother did the same work, my mother too, and now me,” says Rani. Almost all the washermen and women here have stories like hers.

Eleven-year-old Jaikumar, Aiyyappan’s nephew zig zags across the khana . He has grown up here, and on holidays, plays football with his friends nearby. “I will not do this job when I grow up. I want to be a policeman,” he says.

It begins to drizzle, and we take shelter at the place’s ironing unit. The familiar smell of burning coals envelops us. Though there are only 40 ironmen for 100 washermen, they work longer hours. Outside, it continues to drizzle, but the work goes on. The residents function not according to the whims of measly rains, but based on Metrowater timings.

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2022 6:46:26 pm |