Beyond the posh neighbourhood of Maddox Square, a wooden board leads you to rows of washing blocks where numerous bare-chested washermen pound clothes, rinse and wring them and innumerable rows of clothes are spread out for drying. Welcome to the century-old South Dhobikhana- the largest in the country where dirty linen is washed in public, literally.
The Bazaar – USP
The South Dhobikhana is known for its quality work and cheap rates which definitely comprise the unique selling point of this huge public launderette. Set up on 24 acres land, this largest dhobikhana has outshined its counterparts in Mumbai, Chennai as well as Delhi.
“We are proud to say that our dhobikhana is the best in India. The dhobikhanas in Mumbai and Delhi cannot match up to the size and scale of operations, hard-work and the service provided to our customers. We use water which is free from iron and hence the clothes are spotlessly clean after wash. Not even a speck of dirt remains behind when the clothes are delivered after being washed and ironed in the dhobi khana,” says Dilip Das.
The charges are amazingly low. If your local washerman charges you `20 for a bed sheet, a dhobi here will charge only `10 and be assured that the job would be of superior quality.
Actually, most of the local washermen and dry cleaners serving various neighbourhods outsource their service to this Dhobikhana. “So it is we who actually do the washing while they levy extra charges on the customers,” revealed a dhobi.
Apart from individual customers, hotels, restaurants, clubs, salons, railways, gyms, households and so on also utilise the services of the South Dhobikhana. The clothes are generally collected by the dhobis, no matter how far the place is. They even wash and return clothes within a day, if it is urgently required in lieu of extra charges for the overnight toil.
All modes of transport including vans, bike, cycle and rickshaw are used to carry clothes to and from the customer depending upon the distance and the quantum of clothes.
The South Dhobikhana was established by the British Government in 1902. Calcutta was then the capital city of British India and hence the largest dhobikhana was set up to serve the various government agencies. The dhobis were provided with all the necessities and around 108 separate open-air concrete washing blocks were constructed to wash huge piles of clothes regularly. The dhobis who worked during the British era left their jobs to their successors and today many families have pursued the same profession through generations.
The Dhobikhana, situated in the remote interiors of the southern part of the city, is hard to locate, unless one is aware of its existence. In order to reach the South Dhobikhana drive straight from Hazra Road-Ritchie Road crossing towards Maddox Square. Thereafter from Ritchie Road take the second insignificant lane on right adjcent to the boundary wall of St. Lawrence School; a wooden board, inscribed with ‘South Dhobikhana’, marks the entrance. On entering you would notice settlements on both sides of the cluttered, dingy lane. A short distance away you would be greeted by a strong scent of soaps and detergents. As you move on you would come across a number of dhobis pounding clothes to remove the dirt. The washing area is flanked by open areas on both sides where clothes are hung to dry under the sun. There are 10 sheds where dry clothes are dumped for ironing.
The 108 open-air concrete wash blocks are divided into 9 rows, each row having 20 blocks where dhobis wash the clothes. There are around 108 bhatis (coal stoves) to boil the clothes in hot water. Earlier there were 180 bhatis but the number has come down to only 100 odd nowadays, reported Rabi Das, a dhobi.
The dhobikhana receives clean and iron-free water from KMC through three large water pipes. Water is generally supplied from Tala Tank from 7 am to 9 am in the morning and 4 pm to 6pm in the evening. There are two big brass taps installed during British era and still in use. The tap connected to the well has an inlet which then supplies water to the 108 washing blocks. There are also reservoirs where water is stored by the dhobis to complete day’s chores and tide over any crisis when KMC’s pipes run dry.
Unbelievable it may sound but dhobis work round the clock. They start at 4 am in the morning and continue till midnight. The work is done in three stages. At first, clothes are soaked in soapy water over night. Next morning, these are taken out and battered loudly on the concrete washing area.
In the second phase, clothes are rinsed in clean water to get rid of the dirty lather.
In the third phase, clothes are rinsed in fresh water and dumped on big pots. Thereafter, these are scrubbed vigorously with a medley of soaps, chemicals, soda and bleach as required.
Sometimes when clothes are too filthy with rigid oil stains, these are soaked in water with detergent and soda, placed in layers in boiling water over the bhatis to remove oil stains and dirt. The most dirty and oil stained clothes are placed at the centre while others are layered at the flanks. After clothes are treated in the bhatis, they undergo the 3 phase cleaning process. A bhati needs around 25 kg coal and 5 litres of water for each batch of clothes.
Each well has a water outlet system, kept covered till a dhobi is done with his clothes. Then he drains out the used water. It is again refilled by another dhobi with water stored in the reservoirs.
In case of urgency, clothes are sometimes put into hydro machine – a manually operated machine to dry clothes. These machines are big, made with steel and having a hand roller on the side. After clothes are put, the lid of the machine is closed and by rolling the hand roller, excess water is drained out, leaving the clothes to dry in just an hour.
Finally, the clothes are washed in absolutely clean water and dried under the sun by hanging them on nylon ropes. “Initially we used to hang the clothes on coconut fibre-ropes but now we use nylon ropes to avoid any smear, especially during the monsoon”, said a dhobi.
The clothes are dried on the two large fields inside the dhobikhana premises. Thick nylon ropes are tied to wooden posts. There are around 10 such sets in a field. After the clothes are dried, they are stored under the sheds. The dhobis carry it to their respective places, iron it without leaving a wrinkle, which are then delivered to the customers.
According to Rabi Das, “Dhobis existed since the British era but still many people tend to visit the local laundries apprehending that dhobis would ruin their clothes. But they are unaware that the dry cleaners send the clothes to us and charge the customers a higher amount. We do not ruin their clothes; instead we wash with care, leaving them spotlessly clean.”
“Yet, it is very disheartening when the customers don’t trust us and even if they come to us, they start bargaining no matter how less our charges are”, he added.
The 24×7 quick and hassle free delivery service has made them very much trusted over the years. Rabi Das observed: “Today we do the laundry for many star-rated hotels, big restaurants, salons, renowned city clubs and many more. My services are requisitioned by Lake Club, Hotel Majestic International in Chandni Chowk and many others. We have won praises for quality work.”
The dhobis buy coal at `15 per kg, prices of detergents start at `120 per kg while good quality ones may cost up to `300 per kg, soda at `46 per kg and bleach at `65 per kg.
The Corporation too runs a monthly bill ranging from `100 to `200 per washing block. The labour charge for the workers under the dhobis varies from `1500 to `5000 per months or more depending upon the quantity of clothes they wash.
Most of the dhobis have been in the business for generations, starting from the time their ancestors were recruited by the British masters to clean uniforms and linens. “There are around 3000-3500 workers working in this dhobikhana. Around 300-350 workers work regularly. Many of them work part-time or on alternative days depending upon the availability of the washing areas and the bhatis”, said Rabi. However, their earnings are meagre compared to the back breaking task involved, complained many of them.
“I don’t want my son into this profession. I want him to be a doctor and so I am trying to impart him the best education by working overtime,” said one of the dhobis.
The workers hail primarily from the interiors of Bihar. None of them are permanent, they work for 6-7 months and return to their native land during their festivals. Individual dhobis earn according to the number of clothes fetched by them. They are also engaged by various agencies under long-term contracts for the job.
The profit margin is quite slender as the dhobis charge quite less despite the rising inflation. It is astonishing that the South Dhobikhana, a colonial legacy, continues to be a laborous existence even in the era of fancy, automated washing machines.