A friend asked, then a local magazine asked, why do foreigners make the trip to Mahalakshmi to look at the dhobi-ghats? In fact, why would anyone stop on a bridge and look down at people washing clothes?
I've done it myself before, but today I thought I'd find out once again what the appeal is all about. That journalistic impulse, you know. Near-drenched in a driving rain, I walked up the Mahalakshmi bridge from the Saat Rasta roundabout. Stopped just before the entrance to Mahalakshmi station, and stood there for a long time. And I can report here that there is something almost mesmerizing about the sight. Or at least, I am almost mesmerized by the sight.
Rows of concretely-partitioned compartments stretch away in two directions, at about a 30-degree angle to each other. Each compartment is filled to calf-depth with a uniformly grey liquid that once was water: today, I figure the greyness must be as much from the rain as from the soap and grime of the clothes. Today too, the little aisle beside the rows of compartments is also filled with grey water, like a small river, so I don't understand quite what the first two guys that my eyes settle on are doing. Or why, really. Wielding large buckets, they are slopping water from their individual compartments over the knee-high partition and into the aisle.
In one compartment, a man arrives with a huge pile of clothes, which he dumps into the water, then starts stamping on them. Is that how the washing begins? In another, a man sits down for a bath, pouring grey water by the mugful over his head. The rain should be enough, I want to yell, but he's too far away. In several compartments, men beat clothes against the low wall, dull thump reaching my ears a second after I see great arcs of water streaming from the clothes as they come down -- whap! -- on the wall. In that corner, a man stops to peels his wet vest off and his superbly fit and flat abdomen is on display, his arm and back muscles rippling as he wrings out the Tshirt. Then he goes back to beating his clothes, and the arcs fly again.
It looks like hard work. It looks like nothing I'd want to do for a living. But just for a moment here, just for the visual pleasure of this vista below the bridge, even if I'm being unfair and merely a voyeur, I am grateful that there are still people who don't use washing machines. I am grateful that some of us still employ dhobis. I would never watch a washing machine. I could spend hours watching this.