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Washing clothes of others? In India, we’ve been there, done that. | READER COMMENTARY

An Indian dhobi, or washerman, washes clothes on the banks of the River Yamuna in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh state, India, at evening time Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)
An Indian dhobi, or washerman, washes clothes on the banks of the River Yamuna in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh state, India, at evening time Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh) (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

I was fascinated by Lorraine Mirabella’s article, “Pikesville father and son roll out national ‘Uber for laundry’ concept” (Nov. 15). The article was about an app called SudShare. If you download the app and tap it, you can bring right to your door a contracted “Sudster” who will collect your soiled laundry and bring it back in 24 hours washed, dried and folded. The app is available in 400 cities and its only competition, the article says, are your washer and dryer.

During my childhood in Chennai, India, there were no washers or dryers. All clothes had to be washed by hand and dried on clotheslines. This was an arduous task, mostly undertaken by women. Tied to their kitchens and the family’s laundry, women sought liberation and their call for help was answered by “dhobis,” men who emerged from the squalor of Chennai’s slums to be the equivalent of Sudsters. Middle class women, each courted and hired their own trusted “dhobi” who would visit the home once a week to collect the family’s dirty laundry.

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I remember my mother having a dhobi book where she would date and write down meticulously a list of clothes the dhobi would collect from her for washing. There was no question of leaving a bag of dirty laundry on one’s patio for the dhobi to collect as happens with the American clients of SudShare. Instead, women knew their dhobis well, from where they came, if they were married or single (the married ones being trusted more), if they had children or not (the ones with children judged to be the ones who will work hard and return with clean and starched clothes).

The dhobi would be paid, not by the pound as in the case of Sudster, but for each garment an amount determined by haggling, bed sheets and saris costing the most to wash based on their length and breadth, the dhobi setting the price at the time of collection with women arguing them down.

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To the middle class and rich women who hired the dhobis, it was always a mystery where they did their washing. But if you ever went by the Cooum River, you could see rows of men and women from the nearby slums, beating soap and dirt out of numerous clothes dyed in all the colors of the rainbow on the stones by the river. Were they the clothes the well-to-do women wore to marriages and parties? Not even the affluent women knew — or wanted to know.

Unfortunately, the dhobis of India underwent an extinction in reverse, put out of business by washers and dryers. I shall always miss my mother’s dhobi encounters and how cleverly she ensnared the dhobis she hired into returning year after year with our family’s clothes, only rarely suffering a loss.

Usha Nellore, Bel Air

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