For over five generations, they battled against the vagaries of nature. Even during hectic monsoon days with torrential rains, they had to meet targets in washing and drying huge piles of the city’s laundry. In this process, they never had a moment to lose. Whenever the sun was up, they would wring out the clothes and hang them to dry.
Price hikes and generational change have already contributed to dwindling numbers in the profession. But, washer families of Muthalakkulam Dhobi Ghat in the heart of Kozhikode city, are now facing an even bigger threat. The Kozhikode Corporation is planning to construct a huge parking plaza where the ghat is now situated. This will displace these families and put an end to their decades' old profession.
Perhaps nobody has described the plight of the washing stones of Muthalakkulam Dhobi Ghat more than the famous satirist late Ramadas Vaidyar. According to him, the stones had to "suffer" the regular beating of the washermen families during the daytime. By evening, the stage located at the other end of Muthalakkulam would be occupied by some politician or the other who has expertise in washing dirty linen in public. According to Vaidyar, there was no difference in the mornings and evenings for the washing stones. They had to suffer the washing of dirty linen always! The stones had created national and international headlines when Vaidyar organised a huge public event to garland and "honour" them for their continued "suffering".
With the construction work of the parking plaza set to begin soon, the stones will definitely be removed in the first phase. The poor families which are dependent on them will have to suffer the loss of their sole livelihood.
Even for people from outside Kozhikode, the rows of white sheets and pillow covers from city lodges and hotels that are hung to dry on clotheslines, is a regular sight at Muthalakkulam. The workers are from about four dozen families, and the rhythmic beating of the cloth on the washing stones had become a sound symbolic of Muthalakkulam over the years.
Close to the washing stones, there are three water wells. Despite the effects of climate change that can be seen all over the city, the water has remained aplenty in these wells. According to the workers who are members of the Kozhikode-based Asanghatita Meghala Thozhilali Union (AMTU), the ground had been allotted to them much before India’s Independence for laundry work. While their activities were restricted to the daytime, the ground, which has a big stage, was used for public meetings during the evenings.
According to AMTU State Secretary P Viji, there are documents to prove that the ground belongs to the washer community. However, the corporation is adamant in going ahead with its parking plaza project, claiming that it has ownership over the land. The washer families say that they will not allow any construction on the ground.
This is the second time that they are facing the possibility of eviction. Three decades ago, several families were forcibly evicted for road development in the same locality. There ended the rich history of Dhobi Khana where these washer families had lived. It took three decades for the government and corporation to provide them alternative accommodation at flats built in Kalluthankadavu.
Now, they feel that the present threat of eviction will have an even more drastic impact. It will wipe out the entire profession from the city, they say. "Why don’t they wait for another 15 years? The existing washermen and women are the last of their breed. The younger generation of the community has no interest in the traditional vocation. The aged washermen and women will be no more in another 15 years. Then there would be none to resist the eviction," says Viji.
According to him, the once flourishing laundry business is now dwindling. Mechanisation and organised shops have taken away their orders.
“Let the corporation do whatever it likes with the land after the existing generation. They can wait at least till then," he says.
According to the corporation authorities, the plan is to construct an underground parking facility for the vehicles of people attending the public meetings in the evenings. The ground will be maintained as such for public meetings. The only losers will be the laundry workers. The laundry workers claim that their association with the ground dates back to the British era, when the dhobis used to serve their colonial masters. They used to collect clothes from the houses of English officials for washing. That was the time when the dhobis earned well from their profession. Now, they make little money and the price of soap and detergent is also skyrocketing. For a bedsheet, the laundry workers barely get Rs 3. Big hotels have their own laundry and dry cleaning facilities and each worker hardly gets around 25 bedsheets a day. Other than soap and washing soda, they have to meet the expense for the transportation of the soiled clothes too.
The threat of eviction has always loomed large over them. Earlier, the plan was to construct a shopping mall, and now, it's the parking plaza. Once a community that used to service the entire city, their future now hangs on a thread.