Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Ironing Out The Differences

My new Best Friends are the dhobiwallahs. When I pass the laundry, even without the habitual hundredweight of ironing in hand, they all come out to wave. I feel very cherished, but, inside, I know it’s only cupboard-love. Or, ironing-board love, in their case.
Mr Francis talked himself out of the ironing contract, weeks ago. I don’t mind a judicious amount of ripping off, but I have my pride, and my limits. So, I find instead Sree Krishna Steam Press, which you can see from our living-room window. (Mind you, since we’re thirty-three floors up, the only reason you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from here, is the heat haze.) Their address is Shop Number 2, Sunflower, Hiranandani Gardens. Isn’t that charming? It’s a sweat shop. The furnace of pavement gives way to the sultry depths of a glorified pantry, where obliging youths are dashing away with the smoothing iron. Not only steam irons, but stove-irons. You’d be sweating, too.
When I call with my booty-bag - forgive me for feeling a little bit famous - they all stop work, and come front of shop, to count my laundry and say hello. The chief dhobiwallah unpicks the bag, one-two-three, and says, “Fourteen cloth?” I agree, it’s fourteen cloth, so he notes it down in his carbon-copied log-book. At the bottom of the receipt, it says, “We are not responsible after 24 hours.” I think this means for left laundry, but wouldn’t it be great, to abrogate Responsibility for Everything, in a small-print disclaimer at the bottom of your life? I wonder if all the abandoned shirts are raffled off, on the first Thursday of every month? Without asking, he writes our address at the top of the receipt (see, I told you I was a little bit famous...), and says, “I come, five o’clock.”
From the pile spilling over the counter, I pull a crumpled cotton top. At point of sale, the assistant in the shop advises me to have it dry-cleaned, first time, then I’m allowed to wash it myself, at home. I forget this, until I’m pulling it, wet, from the washing-machine. Still, her contradictory advice puzzles me, so I consult the dhobi oracle, for an explanation. They smile and nod sympathetically, fingering the cotton. “Dry-clean, thirty rupee.”No,” I say, “Is clean. I wash.” (Living here’s doing NOTHING for my English.) I have four of them, hanging on my every charade. “Yes. Yes. Yes,” one says, finally, in the light of dawn, “Dry clean, thirty rupee!” Back to Square One - it’s pretty much where I live, these days. I put the shirt with its mates on the counter, and say, “Nimbu amrud nariyal,” with what I hope is some authority. It does nothing to iron out our current dilemma, sadly, since it means “lemon, guava, coconut,” but we’re all full of joy, to meet, at last, on a plane of mutual understanding. I run nimbly through my green-grocer vocabulary, for them. I say my word, then they have to unmangle it into something recognisable. One of them gets carried away, and says, “Kela – banana!” but I already know this, so I have to tell him off for stealing my thunder. I can see that it’s going to be a while, before I’m safe to tackle the fruit-vendor with his barrow, alone. I put both hands on the heap of linen. “No dry-clean,” (throat-slitting mime). “Iron.” Actions speak louder, etc., etc....
It costs more, to have bedlinen pressed, but if they’re prepared to wrestle with a king-sized duvet cover, for just money, I’m more than happy. A tea-towel costs the same as a dress-shirt, on their tariff. Exactly what that tariff is, depends on your birth certificate. Indian residents pay one or two rupees, per item. We pay five, or ten if you want steam-ironing, and all your buttons intact. (I think this is crazy – if they have to tackle a crispy-dry shirt without steam, the inconvenience is to them, surely, they’re doing the ironing, so why are we blackmailed into choosing the more expensive option for our clothes? I understand taxi-drivers, saying a fare is 200 rupees, or 300 with aircon, because it’s obvious what’s in it for us...) At first, I object to this lack of laundry parity, and am considering enlisting Monu, as our brown-faced go-between. But then, I have an economic epiphany, and it comes to me, that it’s simply a domestic version of the National Treasures entrance fees. There’s the small matter of perspective – if you’re only earning 120 rupees a day, you can’t afford to have your shirts ironed at 10 rupees a pop. With our pasty faces and fat wallets, we can. It’s a question of balance, like the Moody Blues said. I muster something akin to grace, and give in.