“I am not Rama to take back a wife who had gone away,” said Mara, the washerman whose comments made Rama abandon Sita.
Eighty-year-old, Pramila Kanojiya, believes that it’s because of this story in the mythology, the washermen community is cursed for life. “No matter how hard we work, we will never progress and continue to be the slaves of our fate,” she says.
Despite what Pramila believes, the Devi Prasad Sadan Ghat in New Delhi has managed to exist and battle the innovations of technology that brought washing machines to every household.
Almost hidden and unnoticed by people, the biggest dhobi ghat in Delhi is located in Connaught Place at the otherwise quiet and serene Hailey Lane. Families of 60 washermen, try to sustain themselves by washing and ironing clothes from dawn to dusk.
In the absence of a river, the ghat has to make do with bore well water, chilamchis (cement tubs) and tanks or hauds. Each washer man operates on his own and buys his machines and chemicals by taking loans. You can always find these men at the ghat, scrubbing and washing clothes and later running around to deliver their clothes on time.
Ashwani Kumar Kanojiya, a washerman at the ghat, feels that Devi Prasad Sadan Ghat is the best one that our country has. “Unlike the open ghats this one has shelters that enable us to continue working irrespective of the weather,” he says. The washermen at Hailey Lane usually work with hospitals and hotels that pay them around Rs 2 to Rs 3 per cloth.
“I wanted to be a photographer, but my father forced me into laundry work. Our families have been in this profession for as far as I can trace our ancestors. Honestly, I don’t mind the hard work, but payment hold ups are what bothers me the most,” says 40-year-old Jaichand.
A hotel in Paharganj owes Jaichand a hefty amount of Rs 30,000 but has been refusing to pay him citing one reason or another.
He cannot complain fearing loss of work in future. His only son has no intentions of joining him. He refuses straight away when questioned if he would want to become a washer man too. “This job does have money, but no respect. So much hard work but no respect,” he says.
Fed up of late payments or not getting paid at all, Ashwani Kumar started working with Dhobi.com that regularly provides him with work and most importantly pays on time. Ashwani earns around Rs 30,000 every month and washes more than 200 clothes every day.
The washermen at the Devi Sadan Ghat feel that washing machines cannot compete with them in terms of the quality of the work. “The primary reason behind skin infections is washing clothes at home. Here at the ghat, we wash clothes in boiling water, use disinfectants and black soap to ensure your clothes are as good as new. Yet, no one values us and people get fooled by the fragrances of fancy detergents and fall prey to deadly diseases,” says Rahul, a young washerman.
After their back-breaking job in this scorching heat, these washermen still find time for celebrating festivals or simply chat about life and work. With immense pride, they invite me to their Ram Leela celebration which managed by them entirely.
Ashwani Kumar tells me about the small temple situated at the ghat. The temple belongs to their kul devta – Baba Nagarsen Ghatwale.
The houses of these washermen are just across the boundary of the ghat. The houses remained small, but the families have grown. Since they do not have the possession of the land they live on, these washermen constantly live under the fear of evacuation. Despite all the troubles, these clothes have been the centre of their world. “We treat your clothes like our babies,” says Pramila.