I am sure if there was a Padma Shri or Oscar for washing clothes, my family would have had two. The two most important men of my life- my father and my husband , enjoyed this seemingly routine activity to no end. I must confess that though I do consider washing clothes , a very hygienic and important activity of life, I could never bring myself to share their love for it. While other families fight over the remote control of TV , in my house fights are on the use of washing machine . Hubby thinks , I can never match his expertise and his skills in washing clothes carefully. I accede to this claim. Both of us coming from the middle class families with the passion for Do-it –yourself , always saw our parents investing time in washing and ironing clothes . Of course , the quintessential Dhobi was just a call away for emergencies.
There is definitely a lot of fun in washing clothes- till of course you are forced to do it frequently . Talking about the art in it, I guess there is much more than what meets the eye. While in the good old days , detergent was the only chemical to be tested on fabrics- we always had home remedies to keep the stains away. My mother would say – use lime or vinegar . Her mother would add soak the dark colours in salt waters first . My father even had standards on hanging the clothes to dry. My sister has evolved her whims for bleaching and starching . Clearly, it runs in the family. And to my luck, I found an equal washing-clothes-enthusiast as my husband .
Earlier , Sundays and holidays were great laundry days . Washing bucketful of clothes – sorting them, soaking them in detergent , special treatmenst for cuffs and collars , hanging some in shades, others in sun and a lot many other rituals were routine for every family around us . The lines of clothes hanging in each courtyard were signs of a sunday well spent . There was something very puritan, very innocent about those laundry days . Of course, those were the days of hand washing and no-driers. Things have changed since then, besides the range of specialized detergents and stain removers , we also have fabric conditioners and whiterners . I wonder how do people in some develop country live without drying their clothes in sun . I am told in many places there are laws against it .They definitely miss out that fresh, crisp touch of freshly washed and dried clothes. Aha , what a feel it is .
Did you ever notice how much this mundane looking activity catches the eye of artists in every age. There are almost equal number of photographs and oil paintings of people washing clothes at streams and ghats of India as there are of women bathing . While one can guess the interest of the artists in the latter , the former beats my imagination. But there must be something or why the heck we have almost half the TV ads on detergents and the other half on shampoos . I ,being a vintage ad collector, can tell this with authority that this has been always like that . If you don’t believe my saying so, come on, do a small test yourself . Try to remember you favorite taglines from your childhood print/TV ads . Nine out of ten, you are either remembering Lalitaji telling the wisdom in buying surf or you are saying “ उसकी साड़ी मेरी साड़ी से सफ़ेद कैसे?( super Rin क़ी चमकार )” . Or may be you are thinking of the little girl in poster asking a pedestrian- “सुनो सुनो ओ बाबूजी कहाँ चले , कपडे क्योँ हैं मैले धुले ?” or is it “ Nirma- promising you “दूध सी धुलाई ” . Now try to think of some recent ads – there is still a high probability that you are thinking of some or the other washing powder/ detergent cake / washing machine ad . Not only this, washing clothes has also been looked at very philosophically, very symbolically.
Given the amount of learning this activity involves , we all have our washing mis-adventures . Even my better half, who claims to be such an authority on the subject , finally conceded that long back in his “learning” days , he spoiled his most expensive set of pants after soaking them overnight . Talking of that, I can’t resist telling the most amusing washing mis-adventure I know. This is from my batchmate who apparently never got a chance to wash his own clothes thanks to his dotting mummy. Now , in the cold days of shimla , his only resource for this work was our dear dhobi. This dhobi once disappeared for many days together . Rest of us continued or started doing our own laundry and were not that affected by dhobi’s disappearance . Someone ( my guess- his lady-love) also advised him to do his laundry himself. Bit unsure about how to do it, our dear novice washerman selected the wash room in one corner of the hostel which no one used . In a bucket he soaked 5-6 clothes for “just 30 minutes” after which he planned to wash them . As you can guess he forgot. And he forgot it for days . It was only after 3-4 days when someone passing from that washroom sniffed a rotten smell and called the cleaners thinking it must be a dead rat , that his soaked clothes were discovered. Of course, the clothes were gone by that time . While all of us teased him to no end, consoling him my roommate told him that she had once soaked her mom’s expensive silk saree in normal detergent and got a tight slap thanks to it. I too have some sob stories of getting my sarees spoiled by dhobis of different places but by and large, it has not been very bad for me. Of course, my husband will never let me forget how I mixed his new jaipuri kurta ( a bright yellow one) with while clothes in washing machine and you can guess the result.
So I do not doubt the skill and expertise of all the dhobis around me. I look upto them with so much respect and admiration .I am aware that in India washing your husband’s shirt is considered a very symbolic gesture of both love and drudgery ( depending upon who you are – a traditionalist or a feminist !) . I am also acutely aware that behind every working couple , there is a huge pile of laundry waiting to be done . I do not get to do that anyways . I read in an article that once Cherie Blair was asked by a journalist that Who wears pants in her house ? She coolly replied –“ Of course it is Tony (Blair) , and he is the one who washes and irons them too .” Believe me , I can empathize .