Monday, March 8, 2010

The Man and his Machine

I think the first washing machine in the vast subcontinent was set up at Narmada hostel.

The parts looked like they had been salvaged from a WWII Jeep abandoned at the Ledo Road in Burma. Any possible doubt was put to rest when the machine was started. It clattered and vibrated with the gusto of a jackhammer at a metro project. There was just one cycle — Run! — which got the job done without the help of any wash, spin, rinse, bob, weave, duck… or dance routine. You put the clothes in, ran the machine until it started to lose water, then you took them out.  

But then, you didn’t have to do all that.

For the man behind the machine was the hostel dhobi, Deaf Dhobes. A lean man with deep-set piercing eyes, he wore a twisted grey beard that looked like it was being wrung out by the machine every Tuesday. He was missing several front teeth and several others rattled when he spoke. He talked a wheezy Tamil as though he personally suffered the plumbing disorders of his machine. These words were also long lost by the time they whistled past his teeth and filtered through his beard. You could have easily mistaken him for a sanyasi, had he swapped his checkered green lungi for a plain saffron one. He was also mostly deaf.

His relationship with the washing machine was not unlike a mahout’s with his elephant. They worked together, laid together, abused each other, and worked together all over again. He was its flogger and caretaker.  

The washing ritual worked like this. You set your dirty laundry out by your door, in the plastic bucket that you normally parked in your room, on the bottom shelf of the inbuilt masonry cupboard. When Deaf Dhobes knocked at your door, you pulled out the blue packet of Nirma (remember that TV jingle? Washing powder Nirma... [down four notes]... Washing powder Nirma... [up five notes]... Nir-Mah!) from the top shelf and handed it over to him. Dhobes would expertly dispense three spoonfuls without a spill and lock it away in a corner of a soiled shirt-tail, sealing it within a flamboyant knot. I think he also took a bit of money as his service charge, before he moved on to clean up your neighbor’s mess.

The bucket would be back at your door by late evening. There was no apparent identification or sorting algorithm. Deaf Dhobes just remembered each student’s clothes, or their buckets. The clothes themselves were inside; tightly wrung out, and coiled limply upon each other like snakes at an Indiana Jones reunion. The drying was left to you.

When you finally got to wear the clothes, large parallel wrinkles would run obliquely across your torso, like some alien exovascular system. Ironing them out, of course, was out of character at IIT since it was pain for no gain. That damp-sweet scent of the wash got so imprinted in your brain that had you bottled it up back then and opened it up now — decades later — you would still home in on it like a hog after a truffle. 

There was more to Deaf Dhobes than met the eye. His room was next to the one that housed his machine and I remember once finding him in a yogic headstand, arms folded beneath him. He was locked in a trance and took a while to get off his stance.  When I beseeched him with my unscheduled wash, he gestured by touching two fingers to the lips shrouded behind his flowing mane.  I got the message. I pulled out a beautiful gold-and-red packet of Gold Flake Kings and gave him one of the two or three precious cigarettes nestling inside. Over time I would give him several more.

During the big cyclone of 1984, it rained buckets for days. Hostels were marooned. Classes were suspended. Football was out, poker and bridge were in.

Laundry was definitely out. Deaf Dhobes had time to kill and he did it well at the Taram’s arrack shop. You could have spotted him there any evening, happy as a mosquito in a nudist colony.

Well, almost. Remember the red blood curry simmering by the front door of the shop? Even Dhobes left that one alone.


  1. I am aghast to read that Narmada hostelers had to wash! Wasn't semester breaks given just for that reason? What am i missing :)

  2. You put your finger on it Lalit! There was a selection bias involved in hostel assignment. Those who had to wash were sent to Narmada.

  3. In that case, I guess I was sent there to get some balance to the equation.

  4. Very funny piece, Curly. Your description of Deaf Dhobes was very evocative.

  5. Hey, I'm Aditya, Editor of IITM's campus publication ( This is an interesting read, more so now because recently the admin has decided to stop washing machine purchases for whatever reason. Can we use this post in the next issue we're printing? Also, do let me know if you're interested in contributing with content otherwise as well (t5e dot iitm at gmail).

  6. mosquito at a nudist colony!! you paint with words!