The Disappearing Dhobis
In the British Colonial era, warships that docked at the Colombo Port had been in dire need of a facility to wash their linen as amenities to do the laundry were not available onboard. The Dhobi community residing in the vicinity of Beira Lake emerged to fill this need. According to a washer-man in Polwatte- P. B. Fernando, in 1928 the laundry men and women had staged a protest – a Dhobi revolution of sorts – demanding cleaner premises to do the washing. The British officers reported this to the Monarch and received instructions to construct a better laundry facility and so the Polwatte laundry across the murky waters of Beira came to be. I visited this olden day laundry at dawn on a Sunday morning in February 2012, just as rumours of their relocation began to circulate. Back then they didn’t wish to be moved, but ultimately, they were no match for the rapid ongoing‘beautification’of the city of Colombo. Today, the laundry, and also the kovil there, has been razed to the ground, and the families relocated to a new location. In many ways, the laundrymen claim life at the new laundry is tougher than at Polwatte. They also worry about the possibility of being moved once again, as the urban regeneration drive continues apace.
Over the last twenty years or so, the sight of laundry left to dry on the crisscrossed clothes lines held up by stakes on the grassy front yard was a common sight for anyone who travelled along Perahera Mawatha. But by early 2013, the land was acquired for a parking lot near ‘Temple Trees, in keeping with the beautification plans of the area.
The laundry, when it was located in Polwatte, comprised of 30 families. Each family was assigned a tank, a washing station, drying room, ironing room, and living quarters behind the laundry premises. It was managed by the Colombo Municipal Council and each family had to pay a rent of just 11 rupees a month. Every member of each family residing here contributed to the laundry work. Most of the washing was done by the men while the women gathered the washed clothes, dried and ironed them. Lionel represents the third generation of his family to work in the laundry. He said he ironed around 100 pieces of clothing and linen daily, and he even received clothes for ironing from other laundries in the city. Even though he had been doing this work for over 25 years, he was not hopeful of his children continuing the trade.
These irons, almost as old as the laundry were among the few remnants of the village’s long-gone days. Despite the availability of electric/steam irons, the laundry men say nothing can achieve the perfection of these antiquated coconut-shell coal irons. Heating the coal iron is quite a process. The hollowed middle of the iron box made of brass is filled with coconut shells. It is then lit and left to burn. Just as the fire dies and the red embers start to glow, the top lid is shut and the ironing begins. For a device so archaic, it even comes with a small shutter at the back to adjust the heat.
The white-tiled tanks, where all the scrubbing and washing is done, were dilapidated and cracked. P. B. Fernando represents the fifth generation of his family to work at the Polwatte laundry. He says it was well maintained during the days of “suddas” (the British) – the walls regularly white washed and floors kept clean. “No one bothers with the maintenance anymore,” he said.
The clothes are sorted and soaked in soapy water in tall blue barrels before being scrubbed. Uniquely, every single piece of cloth is washed entirely by hand.
Standing knee-deep in the tanks filled with water, the laundrymen scrub and thrash the linen and other clothes that have been pre-soaked in soapy water. Once they are washed, the starching begins. But as starch was pricey, they use sago instead.
When I first visited them, I observed that despite their hardships and the anxiety over the possibility of being relocated, the men and women of this laundry village always greeted their customers with a warm smile. “Life is hard, but we have to make the most off what we already have,” they told me.
On May 19, 2013 the worst fears of these laundry folks were confirmed. Orders were issued to immediately remove the Polwatte laundry premises. In a short space of time, the community packed whatever belongings they had, and were moved to their new location right across the Beira lake.
The community was moved to a plot of land right across the lake from their former premises, where the original Dhobi community is said to have settled during the British colonial era. The old Polwatte laundry is no more, and the new home of this trade is now No. 40, Laundrywatte.
Laundrywatte is located in the centre of the capital’s Nawam Mawatha business district, in the midst of several high rise buildings where leading banks and other companies operate. Despite being relocated to the brand new laundry just over a year ago, these families’ lives have not got any better. In fact, they say it has got worse. They say their business has suffered, their living conditions have deteriorated, and they are constantly anxious about the possibility of being asked to move from here too.
The new laundry built at No. 40 comprise of 40 tanks; for the 30 families from Polwatte and the few families who were already residing at the new premises. Although it was just over a year since they were relocated, the washing platforms are already dilapidated. “There are fresh rumours about relocating us once more,”Mahadevan – one of the washer-men tells me. He says it explains the low quality construction of the new premises. “These must be temporary constructions,” he adds.
Leelawathie is a laundry woman who was already residing at No. 40. She is extremely disappointed about their deteriorating living conditions. “Since the new laundry was built, this area floods and the cesspits and drains overflow even during brief rains.”
The laundry folks claim business has dropped sharply since their relocation. “People are not interested in coming in all the way here. Besides, no one can locate this place. We have lost most of the daily business we received from households,” the families lament. Same old coal-irons are used to iron in the laundry, but it too has posed a challenge for the livelihoods of these families. A bag of coconut shells that they bought for about Rs. 75 an year ago has increased to about Rs.100 today.
I visited Laundrywatte on a Sunday and these men and women were busy washing and scrubbing the piles of laundry. The buzz of activity in the laundry comes to a standstill with the arrival of the bread man on a bicycle. It only takes a matter of minutes for the food placed in the glass cabinet to completely disappear. A few laundrymen on their breakfast break share a meal of bread and curry. “These are some of the few pleasures in our life,” the men tell me as they chat and dip pieces of bread in the plate full of curry placed on the blue barrel. For them, it’s another day of silently contributing to the running of this emerging global city, but constantly anxious of becoming victims of the city’s rise.