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Sydney, Australia
My musings and meanderings on childhood - mine juxtaposed with that of my kids'. Everyday incidents and images from our life in Sydney turn my thoughts towards my own wonder years growing up in Bandra, Bombay, India.

30 June 2013

Dirty Linen and the Dhobi

I think we ought to build ourselves an ark, Noah-style. It's been raining cats and dogs (yes, they're allowed on the ark) for the past nine days in Sydney. Not Bombay-style "thunderbolts and lightning; very, very frightening" type of monsoonal rain (I wrote all about that here) but incessant rain that vacillates from downpour to drizzle, and drizzle to downpour with no silver lining in sight.

Which brings me to the awful truth that our house resembles a dhobi ghat. Everywhere I look, I see socks/singlets/sweaters hanging out forlornly to dry.

Remember those days before we had washing machines and dryers?
Back in the Bombay of my childhood, we had a maid who came to do the "top-work" i.e. sweeping and swabbing the floor and washing our clothes. But big bulky items like bedsheets, towels and blankets were reserved for the dhobi (washerman).

After our beds were stripped each week, mum and my aunt would shove the linen into the Dirty Clothes Box (DCB). This DCB came as standard in all Bombay homes. Ours was a tall wooden rectangular one with a small door at the bottom and slats on the side. The slats allowed us to literally 'air our dirty linen' without them turning musty. Inexplicably, the altar with the Cross, holy water and statues of various saints rested directly above it.

My cousins and I thought the DCB made the perfect hidey-hole for pint-sized people like us when a game of 'Hide and Seek' was in progress. The wooden slats allowed you a glimpse outside as the Seeker looked all around for us Hiders. And if you got the giggles, they were muffled by layers of bed sheets and towels.

Getting back to the dhobi: Every Saturday, our dhobi would turn up for the weekly give-and-take; he would give us the previous week's linen all freshly laundered and ironed and take this week's batch.

Like most families, we kept a tally of the INs and OUTs in an old notebook -
an olden-day Excel spreadsheet if you will. Invariably, one item would be MIA.
The following conversation would ensue, with Nana speaking in her version of "Hindoostani" and the dhobi in his shudd Hindi:

"Where's the yellow pillowcase set with the purple embroidered flowers?" my Nana would ask the dhobi.
"Memsahib, I returned them last week," he would hesitatingly offer.
"No, I haven't checked them off in my book. Make sure you get them next week."

The laundry bundled up in a big bedspread, the dhobi would then secure this onto his bhaiya bicycle carrier, and set off to the neighbours' houses. Then to Carter Road or Bandstand where the linen would get a wash and  wallop on the craggy rocks before they were wrung and spread out to dry there.

Next week, same time, same story.
Week after week, year after year...
...until my Uncle C went and bought a twin-tub washing machine.
Then, the dhobi's days were numbered.

So tell me, who does the laundry in your house? Do you separate your whites/brights/darks/linen? Or have a specific method of hanging out the washing?  Do special items go to the laundry? And, in your opinion, what's the best way to spend rainy day?


  1. The laundry is actually split by hubby and I. I put it in the wash and he hangs it out and takes it in and I sort it and fold and put it away. And joy, it's sunny today! About time!!

    1. Yay! I've never been so happy to see the sun! The kids and I were suffering from cabin fever. Love the division of labour in your house, Lorraine. Are you one of those people who has to iron everything? I'm pedantic with the pegs and how the clothes are hung out to dry on the line.

  2. In the 1940;s a cousin of mine was born in May & the next month the monsoons began, like any child, every time he was changed into a fresh set of "triangles" & ground sheets he would wet them again -- it was driving my Aunt up the wall---incidentally this son was born after 17 years of her marriage,so he was his parents miracle son !!! well to dry the clothes--- baby sheets--etc a coal fire was light in an appliance called a shegri, and this was placed in the center of a wicker dome like hemispherical cage , about 6 ft in dimensions and the clothes were spread over the dome & were heat dried !11 QRD !!!

    1. The 'shegri'!! My mum always remembers the coal-fire shegri. I must ask her more about it. What a novel way to dry clothes!
      Due to the heavy rains in Sydney, I've been draping our clothes across the oil-fin heater to dry them. I have to be extra careful that I don't leave them there for more than a minute.
      By the way, what is 11 QRD?? Googled it and it said something about a Quadratic Residue Diffusor...


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