In crowded, hot Mumbai, Samir, the guide, leads a group of five tourists through the 150-year-old Dhobi Ghat clothes-washing vats, the central washing district of the city and according to Guiness, the world’s largest outdoor laundry. Several hundred washer-men, no women unlike most laundries world-wide, process more than a million pieces a day. Usually tourists are satisfied with a look over the top of the ghats from the traffic-jammed Mahalxmi flyover bridge, taking long shots of the laundered items flapping on lines. More adventurous groups ask to explore the area close up. Today, her group of tourist photographers have asked to get into the action and have a more immersive experience. For Samir, getting directly into the ghat means more treacherous stairs to climb, more heat and more moist chemical-smelling air to breathe. The noise from the Mahalxmi railway station and the traffic is deafening but still, over the din, she can hear one of her fat British tourists gasping as he follows her up and down the stairs, cameras swinging back and forth around his neck. He stops, takes a swig from his water bottle and mops his head.
The tourist remarks that he feels self-disgust as they thread their way through the confusing, tangled mess of winding pathways, past the stone washing vats and rusty lean-tos. “Watching the people slaving in these conditions reminds me of 18th century British tourists gawking at the mad in Bedlam,” he observes. They trudge past a dark corner in which the group can barely discern men furiously ironing, using heavy charcoal-fired irons. The charcoal heaps smolder. Samir sees a shaft of light ahead piercing through the labyrinth. She excuses herself for a moment as she know she can get a signal here on her new iphone and check her mail.
Returning to the tourist, Samir tells him that the people working in the ghat can hardly be compared to inmates in insane asylums or prison. Times are changing, she explains, and many of the children of current ghat workers are educated and will find employment elsewhere, unlike in the past when generation after generation of the low caste worked here with no hope of change. She adds that the government, well aware of the ghat’s contradictory symbolism as both an embarrassing remnant of the past, a tourist attraction and a cultural icon, has begun to provide benefits for ghat workers including medical care for themselves and for the children. Their lives are improving.
For some tourists, the Mumbai slums and the ghats have an inexplicable lure. Samir can’t figure out what it is that attracts some and repels others. Overall, she thinks western people get affirmation by seeing the way “the other half lives.” For her, the poor, the ghat workers and the beggars, are simply a fact of life and she gives them little thought except for her tours. They do their jobs and she does hers.
Samir adjusts her "guide sari", a green and pink print. Her shiny black hair is caught up in a knot and she keeps pushing her JackieO sunglasses up her nose, slick from sweat. She's one of those lucky Indian women who’ve aged well. Although 50 years old, she’s often taken for a girl in her twenties. After her self-introduction to her tourists and her mention of adult daughters, someone will inevitably say, "Hey, how old are you anyway?" When she discloses her age, everyone is surprised. She gets the biggest reactions from Americans who want to know what her beauty secrets are. In fact there are none. As her mother did before her, she uses Ponds Cold Cream at night on her face. The 30 minute walk to and from the train station keeps her slim and trim, although her back often hurts from the long hours on the move.
Today, her feet are killing her. One of her daughters prodded her to wear her new shoes this morning. “Mom, you look so much better with the little heel," her daughter Mari said persuasively. On fashion matters the girls mean well, but the generation gap between them never spreads more widely than when it comes to clothing comfort. Her left heel started hurting on the train ride into the city and the hot spot grew into a fiery blister after a scant ten minutes in the Ghat. She’s begun walking on the backs of the shoes to keep them off the blister, hoping her tourists won’t think her ridiculous. As soon as they get out of here, she'll buy a pair of slippers at a street vendor. Tourists never object to a short shopping break along the way.
When they pass Dyrama’s platform, he's in soapy water up to his knees swishing a stick of Dolly Blue* through the soaking sheets. He opens a sack from the Alton hotel on the promenade. It's the 30th or 40th sack he’s opened this morning and he’s rushing to get it all in the wet. He spots a flash of orange which he catches with his stick and pulls it out of the whites before it becomes a disaster.
He can hear Samir speaking to the group in her so-called English. Groaning, he listens to her comedic Indian lilt as he slaps the laundry against the stones. Although Dyrama has suggested to Samir that her speech needs work, she ignores him. He can tell by the strained looks on their faces that many of the tourists don’t understand her. By contrast, those tourists would be surprised to hear Dyrama’s Americanized English which is almost perfect. For years, he’s retreated to the shack after work and watched television—the American shows—and practiced his accent. He speaks “American" all day as he’s pounding and boiling the laundry. He and Torumb, his brother, can sound exactly like Californians.
As Samir gets closer to Dyrama’s bins she can see that he’s having an excellent day. Packets of sheets and pillowcases are piled up high next to his vats. His day begins at 5:00 in the morning as he makes his rounds on his bicycle to collect the “dirties”. He covers a 4-square-mile area around the ghats, collecting packets from hotels, apartment buildings, hospitals and jeans makers. Each packet has a complicated color code developed in the ghats, where originally they washed the clothes of British officers. He can tell at a glance where a packet is from and where it should be returned. Experts estimate the error rate here at 6 instances per million pieces. For all his expertise, he receives about 4 cents for a sheet, 2 cents for a pillowcase.
Dyrama sees Samir's limp and slips her two plasters from the little medicine kit a tourist has given him. The ghat washers rarely need them, as cuts and scrapes are not common. Accidents and inattention here result in chemical burns, scalds, wrenched backs, neck twists and jerks, iron burns and burns from hot coals. Samir thanks him and slips him an excellent tip which he earns by posing with the group for selfies; by poking his head between the lines of flapping laundry; by lining the group up so it’s looks like they’re standing in the water. He’s worked out every tourist-pleasing pose possible because his tips have gradually become far more of his income than the washing.
The orange shirt is bothering him. He doesn’t know how he missed it when he picked the bundle up. It’s been years since he’s made such a mistake. Once the group passes, he picks up the shirt and looks at it carefully, checking the pockets. Just then, Samir calls back to him for help. The fat tourist has slipped and fallen. Samir is struggling to help him up, clutching her iphone in one hand and trying to keep upright in her half half-on half-off shoes. As Dyrama rushes to help, the shirt falls out of his grasp onto the edge of the white vat.
*By 1900 one brand of laundry blue from north-western England was packaged in little bags with a distinctive stick peeking out of the bundle. The stick-handle could be used to dip the blue in and out of the water, while also reminding people of a washing dolly or dolly-peg. Their advertising used cute girl dollies of course. The name Dolly Blue and the stick concept are part of the history of English law since the manufacturer, William Edge & Sons, fought two court cases in 1900 and 1911 in an effort to protect their brand. (These are still cited by English lawyers discussing intellectual property law etc.) Edge & Sons merged with Reckitt & Colman, but closed in 1968. Reckitt also acquired Robin Blue, now a leading "post-wash whitener" in India and Pakistan.