Dying art of Dhobis

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Five decades ago, Haji Ghulam Nabi Shahani, in his 70s, followed the path of his forefathers and started washing clothes on one of the dhobi ghats in the old city of Srinagar.

A narrow congested lane in Aali Kadal area — few steps away from Shahani residence — leading to the dhobi ghat is where Mr. Shahani has washed a variety of clothes like shawls, pherans – a Kashmir cloak and crewel curtains for over fifty years.

In his childhood, Mr. Shahani would accompany his father, Ghulam Mohammad Shahani to the dhobi ghat and learn the job of dhobi at the age of ten. “My father taught me the job,” said Mr. Shahini. “I used to assist him back then.”

Dhobis are traditional laundry workers. They wash and dry clothes, especially shawls, with hands and dry them on a rope in the open sky. Mr. Shahani lives in an old architectured, yellow-colored three-storey mud house with his wife while his son lives separately in the same compound.

As a 1990s Bollywood song plays on an old transistor in a room with one dim-lit bulb, Mr. Shahani — wearing a khandress, skull cap, and a sleeveless sweater — moves iron slowly on a mustard color shawl with his tough and wrinkled hand, to get rid of the creases on it.

Around knee-deep water, Mr. Shahani remembers helping his father stomping clothes under his little feet that have grown in size over the years, washing countless clothes in the flowing waters of the river Jehlum.

Mr. Shahani is the fourth generation of his family working in the same business of washing and removing tough stains of grease, tea, curry, ink, and many others. “It gets hard to remove stains of pomegranate juice and raw apricots mostly,” he said. “It takes more time and effort.”

The profession of dhobis, as per Mr. Shahani, has been in existence since times immemorial in Kashmir. He claimed that the old city’s dhobi ghat in the Aali Kadal area has been famous for many generations in Kashmir. The ghat used to be seen filled with drapes of colorful shawls and crewel curtains along with different clothes, hanging on ropes to dry over two decades ago.

Over the years, as Mr. Shahani sees it now, ropes have started having a few empty spaces as the clothes for washing started reducing. “Washing machines have replaced us [dhobis] and the vibrant surroundings of the laundry areas have also disappeared with time,” said Mr. Shahani.

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Early in the morning, men including Mr. Shahani, who still carry the legacy of their previous generations walk towards the dhobi ghat for washing and removing stains on clothes by the evening.

Back in the times, the beating and scratching sound while washing the cloth with hands echoed the yarbals – bathing ghat with steps, of the river Jhelum in the old city, during the early hours.

The process of washing the clothes starts with rinsing them in hot water, stored in a cylindrical furnace. The cloth is then repeatedly drenched in the flowing water of Jhelum.

During the process, it is squeezed and beaten on a stone. The cloth is then washed with cold water before placing that in a plastic tub containing bleach and detergents, then stomped under feet to ensure that there is no stain left on the cloth.

Then the clothes are checked again to see if any stains are left and rinsed with warm water at the end. After the entire procedure, the cloth is then placed on a rope, left to dry.

Mr. Shahani recalls that more than forty launderers used to be on the ghats washing shawls, crewel curtains and clothes around twenty years ago and now, there are only eleven of them working on the three ghats of the area. “Many of them died and the current generation doesn’t want to do the job as it takes a lot of strength and patience,” said Mr. Shahani. “Only a few of us are left now.”

Mr. Shahani added that even some launderers changed the profession when people started washing clothes in the washing machines, declining their work. “Mostly large curtains and shawls are washed by us now, as the citizens get their clothes washed in machines, at their homes only,” said Mr. Shahani.

Mr. Shahani lamented about the old times and talked about how one man earned enough and fed the whole family. “Although, I still feed myself and my wife by earning through the same profession, but it becomes hard to meet the ends sometimes,” he said. “Totui shukur temis khudaye’ sund – Still I am grateful to God.”

***

Among the old and regular customers of Mr. Shahani, few of them still come from far off places like Budgam, Pattan, and Baramulla because of the name that he and the ghat he works have maintained throughout the years.

Moments ago, a customer, of Soibugh Budgam, came out of the quiet corridor of the house with a bag of clothes that he had given for laundry to Mr. Shahani and left bidding goodbyes to him with a smile on his face.

From charging a maximum of 8 annas thirty years ago to 50 rupees per cloth today and from washing over 30 clothes in his youth to hardly 20 of them per day currently, old age has started affecting his health. “Aches and illnesses are common in old age,” said Mr. Shahani, holding and then rubbing his back.

Mr. Shahani says that he lives in a dhobi mohalla and has seen people in his family and around the area working as launderers since his childhood.

He doesn’t have a count of clothes that he has washed till now. “How can I even give you the exact number?” Mr. Shahani chuckles.

He asked with a hushed tone that now that he has grown old, what difference will anything make to him? “I have given my service, what is there left now?” said Mr. Shahani.

As he talks about Jhelum’s reduced water level and the decline in his work, he rued, “Natkyah, Jehlumas aaw aab kam gachaan yith ken soun kaar ti heytun maklun. Yes, Jhelum started shrinking just like our work.”

 

This was first published in the 2 – 8 November 2020 print edition.


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Gafira Qadir
Gafira Qadir is a Senior Features Writer at The Kashmir Walla, who covers human rights, culture, and the intersection of gender and society.

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