The only indication this is a laundry are the two dozen or so pairs of jeans laying on tarps on top of the cars along the narrow road. We are in one of the better slum areas of Mumbai scattered throughout the city and home to over half the population of the rich financial centre of India. This laundry is small and community owned, workers of several generations carrying on the family business.
As we enter, we see perhaps half an acre of raised concrete ‘tubs’ with walking paths between them where the clothes and linens are scrubbed by hand in very little water. The water is purchased from the city at a discount but is still the major expense. We walk along the wet concrete slab path past maybe twenty male washers to a hut where we are proudly shown a couple of antique looking automatic machines, new to the laundry and a sign of its prosperity.
Above the washing as far as the eye can see are drying rails for sheets, towels, clothing and sundries, stretched out in the sun. It is very hot and humid here, hard to imagine how these tightly packed lines of wet laundry will ever dry. But they do, and are pressed and folded, again mostly by hand, and delivered to the hotels in the area by late afternoon. It is incredible to hear they virtually never make a mistake in what goes where or to whom, the different bundles of laundry being handled by different families and labeled with small symbols accordingly.
Behind the laundry area we are given a tour of the housing for the families who live and work here. It is a warren of tiny lanes with small raised concrete block rooms on either side, most with a piece of cloth for a door, a few with a tile floor. There are water taps here and there but no sign of toilets or bathing facilities. The single rooms have cooking facilities on the far wall and several rolled up mattresses. One has a television so we know there is electricity. We are told that the city has ceded this very expensive city-centre land to these families and they are free to sell to developers any time. However, they prefer to stay and carry on their traditions even though a move to Navi Mumbai, a suburb across the river, would mean better living conditions.
I am reminded of the importance of home once again, the safety and intimacy of the known, of family and neighbourhood, of purpose and employment. And yet…