The other day a forgetful friend quipped tongue-in-cheek, “My dhobi thoughtfully cleans out my pockets before washing my clothes!” This inevitably reminded me of the dhobis, good and bad, I’ve so far known.
In my boarding school in Tiruchi in the 1950s there was Dasan, a sturdy veteran whose bulging biceps, fellow boarders claimed, developed from constantly pummeling our clothes. When it came to fraying, tearing or debuttoning clothes, Dasan had few rivals. Perhaps the sheer volume and drudgery of his work drove him to vent his frustration on our togs. Thanks to his ministrations, even buttonholes were usually yanked wide apart as if to accommodate buttons twice the size of existing ones! Mauled clothes notwithstanding, his service was regular. His two donkeys would trudge in fortnightly, weighed down with bulging bundles of washed linen.
Once Dasan’s donkeys chewed up the prefect’s cassock drying on the clothesline, earning him a heavy fine. Another time he all but lost his job when one of his donkeys burst into a frenzy of raucous braying during the prefect’s post-lunch siesta—a sacrosanct hour when even we boarders never dared to raise our voices. Fuming, the prefect promptly had the donkeys muzzled.
Then during our holidays in Munnar there was the jovial Muthu, a hardworking dhobi whose forte was starching. Despite our pleas, he invariably starched our cotton clothes to a stiffness that rivalled even the rigid, cardboard-like khaki shorts of the cops then. To wear such abrasive clothing was like draping ourselves with nettles. But Muthu swore by the efficacy of starch in making washed clothes look presentable.
As a bachelor I had a rather unreliable dhobi named Manian. A cheeky youngster, he liked to don the fashionable clothes of his customers. Once I caught him strutting around in one of my prized silk shirts and ticked him off sternly. One night he was even seen sporting the British assistant’s striped pyjama trousers!
Sometimes, Manian chose to “autograph” or rather “tattoo” our clothes indelibly with his coal-heated iron. Once slipping on a freshly laundered shirt, I was dismayed to find a distinct military-like “decoration” adorning the left side of my chest. It was an unsightly scorch mark, the result of his rank carelessness. Equally annoying was his tendency to mix up clothes—my colleagues’ clothes often came to me and vice versa. Certainly, no one likes the size and state of his inner wear to be publicised! Fed up with Manian’s bungling, we sacked him—only to find there was none to replace him. Soon he was back, leering, and indulging in his favourite “pastimes”.
The washing machine has replaced the dhobi in most homes. And if a clothes-ironing robot is ever invented, the good old dhobi and his docile donkeys would probably walk into the sunset!