Mumbai's Dhobi Toil With Laundry

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In Mumbai, India, a caste of people toil away doing the city's laundry by hand. It is grueling work, often done in 100-degree heat by hundreds of men, women and some children who beat the laundry on rocks they rent for $8 a month. They are Dhobis, a Hindu caste born to the job.


Now, to India and the city of Mumbai where an entire cast of people toil away doing the city's laundry by hand. NPR's Laura Sydell takes us to visit them at the edge of the river where they work.

LAURA SYDELL: As in any motor and bus when the city traffic is thick in Mumbai. Every day, more high rises spring up top house the city's 16 million people. The economy is running so fast that there aren't enough hotels for the foreign business travelers. And those hotels still do their laundry the old-fashioned way.

(Soundbite of pounding)

SYDELL: Every day, hundreds of muscled, rail-thin men and women beat and scrub laundry by hand in a big open space in downtown Mumbai.

It is grueling work, usually done in 100-degree heat. These are the Dhobis, a Hindu caste, born into the job of doing laundry.

Mr. RAHMAN REN: (Hindi spoken)

SYDELL: Rahman Ren(ph) says his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were all Dhobis. Ren has been working in Mumbai since 1969. He and his wife and the hundreds of Dhobis at Sat Rasta, as this place is called, wake every morning at 3:00 a.m. to put clothes and linens into a large basket of water and detergent. They soak it for eight or nine hours and then they begin to scrub and beat the laundry against rocks.

Mr. REN: (Hindi spoken)

SYDELL: Ren says sometimes his hands get so dry from the washing chemicals that they crack and bleed. For his efforts, he says, he and his wife make around $130 a month. Most of the Dhobis who work in Sat Rasta also live on the ground in small illegal one-room huts. The only rent they pay, about $8 a month. It's for the stones where they beat the laundry.

(Soundbite of pounding)

SYDELL: But in an age of washing machines and expanding economy, it's not clear how much longer the Dhobis will be here. Ren's three sons are in school studying computers. There are children who work here. Twelve-year-old Saktha Naresh(ph) works as a Dhobi for part of the day, but he's also in school.

Mr. SAKTHA NARESH: (Hindi spoken)

SYDELL: Naresh wants to be a policeman. Other young people here think about jobs in the tech industry. Despite the changing economy, Rahman Ren believes they will always be Dhobis.

Mr. REN: (Hindu spoken)

SYDELL: He's not afraid of competition from washing machines because he says, the laundry done by Dhobis is cleaner, and in a country with more people than jobs, hand washing is cheaper.

When today's laundry dries, Ren will press it and deliver it with a hand card to a center where it's then sent back to the city's hotels.

Mr. REN: (Hindu spoken)

SYDELL: Ren says he likes his job because he's hoping to keep the world clean. As long as Ren is around, there will be at least one Dhobi at work since he isn't likely to have enough money to retire unless his children get one of those high-tech jobs and support him in his old age.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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