OwlStories is a journal of events, journeys and experiences of this beautiful world by Naveena Mohan.
A means to livelihood
Inside chaos is a means to a decent livelihood and a life of peace! It’s easy to find your way through the main arched entrance into this amazing maze called Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat, amchi Mumbai’s very own bhulbhulaiyya. But walking out of the same door one enters is the real challenge. Thousands of people commute each day through the Mumbai local right next to this world-famous open-air laundromat, and an equal number of people take the road next to this busy dhobi ghat but hardly a handful would have paused to stop by and take a look at this yet another unique place. From the elevated road, the view of this laundromat is completely chaotic. Tin sheds up until one can gaze, never-ending rows of strings held by the supporting bamboo or the metal poles holding clothes hung out in the sun, in between the clothes, if one happens to take a closer look one also finds a human head bobbing every now and then either yanking a dried clothe or again adding another shirt or a pair of jeans alongside the already drying clothes, a kid running along the invisible path, a lady listlessly carrying water pot and disappearing in the chaos of clothes, rows of concrete water-filled wash pens with the iconic flogging/wash stones in the middle, huge cauldrons filled either with water or the laundry, at some far end a few washermen taking a short break from their work and relaxing oblivious of all the busy activities outside their colony, which is surrounded by extremely busy roads, railway tracks and skyscrapers, almost on all the sides. This is the first look of the 140-year-old and a Victorian-era laundromat which surprisingly still retains its original name ‘Mahalakshmi Dhobi Ghat’, located in the heart of Mumbai city! Today, one finds a gallery by the roadside next to the Mahalakshmi Railway station (along the western local railway line) to stop by and get a view of this popular point of interest, supposed to be the world’s largest open-air municipal laundry, while in Mumbai.
With an estimated business turnover of 100 crores annually, the washermen still follow the traditional method of washing clothes by hand. However, with the advanced mechanical methods of washing and drying the clothes, the work seems to be comparatively easier. The main business happens to be from the hospitals and hotels apart from the neighbourhood laundries, wedding decorators, caterers – all this collected across the length and breadth of Mumbai. Work never seems to stop at this one particular place where the washing, scrubbing, drying and ironing process seems to be done in a loop continuously! It is believed that 7000 people work for 18 to 20 hours a day and over 1 lakh clothes being washed and ironed every day.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that this entered the Guinness Book of World Records under ‘most people hand-washing clothes at a single location’, in 2011. Another trivia associated with this place has to be the interest shown by the film producers and directors and making use of the location in their movies. Bollywood blockbusters like Munnabhai MBBS, Shootout at Wadala and other Marathi movies adds a touch of glamour to this rather chaotic and complicated workplace.
Soaking, scrubbing, washing & drying and ironing, is the way of life
Walk the narrow alleys inside the dhobi ghat to get the real feel of the workplace. Friendly dhobis (washermen) greet you with a smile even as they go about their jobs. The soapy-waterfilled wooden vats, soiled clothes soaked in the concrete tanks, big tins of chemicals used in washing the clothes, a rhythmic thud noise of the mechanical washing machine in between the shrill sound of the clothes being beaten on the flogging stone, a scrawny little kitten watching you tip-toeing on the wet ground and the soiled water gushing out of the huge mechanical washing machine and unexpectedly soiling your footwear when you happen to be minding your head under the strings of clothes hung to dry in the passageway at the same time caring for your camera weighing you neck down even as the mild smell of the chemicals used in bleaching or dyeing wafts past your nose – an experience not exactly for faint-hearted. That is just one part of the open-air laundromat for you!
A different world exists under the tinned roofs and the concrete sheds which run all along these narrow open alleys! Dark & dingy and dust only visible under the bleak sunrays peeping through the small holes or opening from the tin roof, a dull bulb illuminates a few dark corners of these long tunnel-like shed with great difficulty. It inside these sheds the other integral part of the laundry takes place – ironing! It takes a few moments for the eyes to get used to the darkness. Huge bundles of cloth, tables covered with the cloth used for ironing the washed clothes, workers mechanically going about their work is a common sight. Walk the path and feel the heat of the hot iron box, occasionally watch the dal boiling on the nearby stove and the cut vegetables kept ready for cooking, a small gathering of workers chatting away in their break or taking a quick nap on the same tables where the clothes are ironed and women lending a helping hand in the ironing job is also a familiar sight. In short, these sheds double up as the residences to the families in this profession.
Back again in the out, take those wobbly and creeky metal stairs to the top of those sheds, make your way in between the lines of clothes drying in the hot sun and watch the world around and below! Another interesting perspective. Some vantage points will provide you with a 360-degree view of the surroundings. Completely surrounded by the colourful rows of clothes and some sharp eyes curiously watching the visitors’ interest in visiting the place can only be answered with a smile and a pleasant greeting.