A century of ironing out differences | Sunday Observer

A century of ironing out differences

Work, for the night is coming,
Work through the sunny noon;
Fill brightest hours with labour,
Rest comes sure and soon.
Give every flying minute
Something to keep in store;
Work, for the night is coming,
When man works no more
- Mason Lowell

Today, a common household task disliked by many is laundry. This is in spite of the digital washing machines and dryers that are found in most homes. So the next option is to give your soiled clothes to the laundry. Unknown to many in Colombo there is a washing community who toils daily for a living. These hardworking men and women live in a community called “Vannan thottam’- derived from the Tamil words meaning garden of washer folk. The colonial term used back in the day was dhobi.

I entered this washing fraternity located on a busy road along Armour Street, Colombo 13. As I walked into their premises the fragrance of washing powder permeated the air.

I was surprised to see rows of cement tanks filled with water, and muscled men standing waist deep washing clothes. The spray of water drizzled all around me as I approached an older man. Clad in a blue sarong and white banyan Mahendran is a senior who commands the clan’s respect. I spoke to him in Tamil and he relaxed and explained, ‘Brother, I am 56 years old. I entered the washing community as a boy of 12 years. It was fun to stand in the water for hours, but as the years went by I realized the harsh reality of life. For more than 40 years I have stood waist deep in water, for six days of the week. Look at my hands”. As Mahendran stretched forth his hands I noticed that his finger nails were all discoloured. He smiled and added, “We begin work at 4 am, while the city is fast asleep. It is cooler then. We wash clothes until 3pm. Despite toiling for four decades, I earn only 1,000 rupees a day. My father also did the same job”.

There were about 40 robust men aged between 22- 50 washing clothes. Each cement tank had a hard granite surface on one side where the linen was scrubbed by brush and beaten on the rock when required. The men were drenched in perspiration.

Mahendran showed me the process of the operation. First, the large cloth bundles are opened out, and the clothes sorted out by women - white and coloured. The clothes are then marked. Depending on the size of the garment they are soaked in washing powder and caustic soda. Some clothes are soaked for an hour, while heavy pieces like curtains are soaked overnight. By 4 am the men enter the cool water and begin their synchronized washing movements, keeping to a rhythm. A few men work the line along the tanks taking the washed clothing and piling them onto holding drums. Next the women take the wet clothes, rinse them dry and hang them up on the long rows of rope. The ‘drying zone’ is a vast area with wooden poles that support miles of rope when straightened out. I spoke to a woman who was a widow and wished to remain anonymous. “My husband died of cancer; I came here from Kandy with my three children. I walk in the hot sun drying and gathering the clothes. Look at my hair, turned brown by the sun. I do this for my children.”

We moved along a row of small houses, 41 in all, where many of the washer folk lived. A few lived outside the fraternity and travelled daily to work. The front sections of these humble homes have been extended with canvas cloth to facilitate ironing. A row of men stood ironing the clothes, their bodies covered in sweat. They used the old charcoal infused iron boxes. A burly man greeted me “I am Manimaran, and have been here for the past 30 years. This iron box belonged to my late grandfather. So it is an antique. The benefit of this old iron is that you can use it even during power cuts”. I was surprised to find a young girl, clad in black ironing with much zest. She asked, “Are you going to take my photo?” I did and she smiled. Dharshika is in her late twenties and said, “I have been doing this for a few years. It is not an easy job. I feel the heat of the charcoal iron. But I earn an honest living, and make about 1,000-1,500 rupees a day”. An older woman approached carrying a little girl. Saraswathie has been folding and ironing clothes for three decades. She explained, “We are a forgotten community. We perform an important task, we iron so much of clothes for other people to look smart as they go to their offices. We wash and iron about 2,000 kilograms of clothing and linen daily. Our men deliver the clothes to the homes on Sundays. I don’t want this little girl to do this job. Society will reject and label her- as they have done to us. She must study and find a good career”.

The ringing of a bell, directed my attention to a small Hindu Kovil. The Kaliamma Kovil has been built by the ancestors of this clan almost 90 years ago. The faithful men and women seek divine blessings to ease the burden of their hard labour. At our final stop Kanagasaby and his son Pradeep worked as a team. Pradeep is 32 years, and said, “We took this job as we had no other choice. I can wash and iron - I can multi task. When I have time I enjoy watching a Tamil film, these are the humble pleasures we get in life. We are not complaining. Our community is united and we face everything together”. The father added, “Every week a tractor comes to us with charcoal; we buy a kilo at 220 rupees. We use about four kilos a day to iron”.

This forgotten community has survived for 100 years, but as this generation moves on their innocent clan will be washed away into oblivion. 

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