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Love, labour and laundry: The remarkable stories of Karachi's dhobis

Updated Sep 23, 2015 01:13am
A dhobi puts up laundered clothes for drying in the sun.
A dhobi puts up laundered clothes for drying in the sun.

The service of the dhobi has been around for centuries in this part of the world. The word dhobi refers to a dry-cleaner, or a launderer. According to Mohammad Taqi, an 85 year-old dhobi, it is an age-old profession which dates as far back as the Mughals.

That was the time when dhobis were employed as the launderers of the royal court in Delhi. After the fall of the Mughal Empire, the service changed to cater to the officers of the British administration. Come 1947, many of the Muslim families from the dhobis migrated to Pakistan.

Today, most of them have settled in Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi and continue the same line of work.

The following stories are of the dhobis living behind the St Patrick’s High School in Saddar, Karachi. As they go about this back-breaking and tedious job, they take in the dirty, off-smelling clothes and return them freshly laundered to smiling customers.

Dhobis develop an itch in their feet, a symptom very common among them.
Dhobis develop an itch in their feet, a symptom very common among them.

Their story is one of a past painted entirely with struggle; first during the time of migration, when they had nothing, and then, from all the years since then, the endless physical labour – all for survival and a few extra pennies.

Despite the chronic itchiness that comes with the job, their limbs continue to power through the motions; strong arms and willpower pushing ahead for a better future for their children, a new generation in rise.

From royal courts — The story of Mohammad Hanif

“People out here call me ‘Allahwallah’. I am 75 years old.”

Mohammad Hanif spoke in a frail voice. His hands were wrapped around each other. I asked him to tell me about the time he came to Pakistan. He looked into the distance and began:

“My family and I migrated to Pakistan in 1947. We were originally from Delhi. I was seven years old at the time. I remember we waited for two weeks near the Lal Qila to board a train to Pakistan. We had a group of Nepali soldiers with us too. The trains were full with people and there was no space for us.

“Finally, we found one that had enough room. We boarded it and arrived at the Wagah border after an overnight journey. At Wagah, a relative who had arrived in Lahore earlier, received us and took us to a compound for the dhobis.

“We stayed for two years in Lahore. After that we traveled to Sukkur and stayed there for two months, until my chacha brought us to Karachi, where we settled in what is today known as the Lines Area.”

Mohmmad Hanif at 75 years of age.
Mohmmad Hanif at 75 years of age.

He stopped to take a short break, trying to recollect from his memory, then continued:

“The area at that time was an open place with grassy patches. We were two brothers and two sisters. I was schooled up to 12 years until my mother took ill. After that, I had to take on some of the responsibilities of the house, which was why I left school. Then, I started working as a dhobi.

“I got married at the age of 18 years on 10th Oct, 1958. I had seven children with my wife. Four sons and three daughters. Two sons studied up to grade VIII, the third son studied up to grade IX and the youngest son studied to grade XII. My daughters studied up to grades seven and eight. They are all married today and have children of their own.”

Hanif stood up to continue work on the laundry. The room is lit by the light coming in from the narrow gaps in the wall. The walls aren’t plastered or painted, and the room smells of bleach and washing powder. In front of me is one big stone tub and two industrial-scale wash machines and a dryer.

Hanif transfers washed and wet clothes to put into the dryer to spin out the water.
Hanif transfers washed and wet clothes to put into the dryer to spin out the water.
Waiting for the dryer to drain out all the water from the clothes.
Waiting for the dryer to drain out all the water from the clothes.
During the wait, Hanif sometimes drifts into space.
During the wait, Hanif sometimes drifts into space.
Emptying out the spun clothes.
Emptying out the spun clothes.
During Hanif's break, his son Nasir tells me about their rudimentary directory.
During Hanif's break, his son Nasir tells me about their rudimentary directory.

His son Abid tells me they don’t allow their father to work. Hanif chuckles and tells me, “If I don’t work, my joints will hurt more; it keeps me active instead of just sitting around at home.” He then takes a load of freshly washed clothes and puts them into the dryer to spin out the water.

I asked him what the numbers on the wall meant. His son Nasir explained to me how they keep a rudimentary telephone directory for important contacts.

I asked Hanif to tell me about his life during his younger days.

“Life then was very simple and happy. Even though we never earned enough, things weren’t as expensive back then. We would begin work after the Fajr prayers and close at the call for Asr. We’d still have bundles of clothes to wash, but we never felt the pressure to hurry.

“Today, we have to work from morning until late into the night just to keep up with our expenses and earn for our family. If our children and the female members don’t pitch in and share some of the responsibilities, our profit margins will see a sharp decrease. I am thankful to Allah that we are able to keep up with the expenses and save a little.”

He sat down for a break and I looked at his hands and feet. Each wrinkle was like a tree ring, a testament to the time and labour they had weathered.

Mohmmad Hanif's hands after over a half-century's worth of work.
Mohmmad Hanif's hands after over a half-century's worth of work.
Hanif sorting dirty clothes.
Hanif sorting dirty clothes.

Hanif continued to speak where he left off:

“During Ayub’s time, the settlements outside the barracks were forced to move and the people were relocated to areas such as New Karachi, Korangi and Landhi. Those who were living in the barracks weren’t moved.

“When the plots for New Karachi were being announced, a dear friend – who is almost like a brother to me – bought a plot. Initially, it was in his name, but due to an administrative mistake, it was allotted to another person. My brother and I went to protest about it. We were then beaten by the police. I received blows to my knees, back and elbows. Those turned into bruises which still hurt to this day.”

He ran his hands over the places where the bruises hurt him, and continued: “After the removal of the settlements, we were asked by the city government to vacate the barracks and move to the area around Dastagir, near the Lyari River.

“The city government did not offer to allot those proposed lands in our name. I personally asked the commissioner to allot us a space at our current location, since we had been working there for many years. ‘What guarantee can you give us that the land near Dastagir wouldn’t be take away from us?’ Today, look what happened after the construction of the Lyari Expressway. People had been asked to move again.”

He paused for a minute and said, “Thankfully we won our case and were given a small space at our present location.”

Hanif went out of the workstation and unpacked a new bundle of clothes, beginning to sort the white from the coloured ones, his old age reflecting in how he untied the knots in a tired effort.

I asked him what happened after they won the case.

“After we were allotted a space, I sold a small plot of land near the Power House. I had invested a part of my savings in it. It was sold for Rs24,000, a very cheap price even at that time. I used that money to build the small house where I currently live.

“For a few years, we lived without basic utilities. We used kerosene oil to cook our food and water was used from the public hydrant. Eventually, my children started to come of age and my wife said they needed to get married. So I used the rest of the funds to marry off my children one at a time.”

Hanif kept sorting the clothes and began to mark them to identify the batch they belonged to. I asked him if he ever sought other economic opportunities after his own marriage. He earnestly replied:

“No. I had no choice. We have been conditioned into working in this profession for two reasons. One, I didn’t learn any other skill; two, I didn’t get the chance to complete my studies. You see now, my grandson – who I hope Allah makes him an officer – is pursuing the Master of the Arts. My other grandson is a Hafiz and leads the taraveeh prayers at the local mosque. They have better opportunities to seek a better life.”

Hanif marks each cloth to categorise them according to the batch number and owner.
Hanif marks each cloth to categorise them according to the batch number and owner.
Mohammad Hanif in the centre with his two sons, Abid on the left and Nasir on the right.
Mohammad Hanif in the centre with his two sons, Abid on the left and Nasir on the right.

It was a cloudy day when I spoke to Hanif. On the sign of a light drizzle, the dhobis would rush outside to remove the dried clothes out of fear that they would get wet. Hanif grumpily said, “These days, I don’t like work because of the cloudy skies. We can’t tell if it is going to rain or not.”

I asked him what he liked about the work when it isn’t cloudy. His reply was simple: “It provided me with a source of income and now at the age of 75, after all these years of hard labour, my children are settled. I can now pass the twilight of my life in the satisfaction that they will be okay.”

He added, “I am also able to take off early from work, since my sons do not allow me to exert too much due to my arthritis.”

That, he said with a soft smile and a twinkle in his eyes.

A fear of marriage — The story of Muhammad Faheem

“I’ve had four marriages, but every time, the bride would run away on the day of the baraat.” Faheem said this with a serious look on his face. I almost believed him until he broke into peals of laughter with his gutka-stained teeth.

“I would never let her run. My family and I would take her anyway.” he said jokingly and continued, “I am getting married in a week. Why don’t you come to our reception?” I agreed and accepted the invitation.

I reached the venue on the day of the wedding. A makeshift shaamyaana was put up in the small space between the C.D.G.K Parking Plaza and the St Patrick’s High School.

Inside, the families of both Faheem and his wife arrived after a while, with the latest Bollywood songs playing in the background. The speakers were huge, with the heavier beats reverberated through the valley-like space. Up ahead was a stage with three simple seats, the kind that is used at any wedding reception. After half an hour, Faheem and Muskaan entered with the ladies of each person’s family on either side.

Faheem leaves in a hurry to make arrangements for his wedding.
Faheem leaves in a hurry to make arrangements for his wedding.
Faheem enters with his wife Muskaan for their valima.
Faheem enters with his wife Muskaan for their valima.
The families of the bride and groom at the valima reception.
The families of the bride and groom at the valima reception.

The night quickly passed by and after dinner, both families sat down for the ceremony called bahat. Mohammad Haji Taqi, Faheem’s father, later explained the ceremony to me. On the day of the valima the family members of the bride’s family gift the groom’s family with a shalwar qameez suit. This tradition has been passed down to them by their forefathers and it goes as far back to the time when they served in the royal court of the Mughals.

The next time I went to meet Faheem, it was midday. He sat in a shaded enclosed space surrounded by clothes. He moved a big pile that was next to him and beckoned me to come and sit inside.

While he chewed on gutka, he spoke, “I am 36 years old. I am the youngest of seven brothers and three sisters. I have to give credit to my father for his faith and the hard work he put in to bring us up after the death of my mother.”

His voice grew quiet. Then he continued:

“I studied up to the second grade. One day, I didn’t complete a home assignment because I had a headache the previous night. The next morning, the headmaster, on one of his daily rounds, came to my class and checked everyone’s notebook. After seeing my incomplete work, he began to hit me with a stick. Since that episode, I developed a fear and never went back to school.”

At this point, his expressions changed, as if trying to withhold a scarred memory from unfolding in his mind. To change the subject, I asked him how he felt now that he was married.

“I feel relaxed, with no worry. When you marry, the wife brings blessings to the household. I had a fear of getting married. My father and brothers were worried about me. I would tell them if I can’t support myself, how can I support a family?”

He paused, before continuing, “I had seven girlfriends. I spoke to them at night, using cheap call packages. I tried to understand women, but couldn’t. I feared that if I married one of them, I would be kept away from my family. Eventually, I trusted my father’s decision in selecting a wife for me. He gave me simple advice. If I kept my wife happy, I will be happy too, because she is the one who makes a home.”

Bahut, the tradition where the bride's family gifts the groom's family with clothes..
Bahut, the tradition where the bride's family gifts the groom's family with clothes..
Faheem at the age of 36, shares his fears about love and marriage.
Faheem at the age of 36, shares his fears about love and marriage.

Faheem continued, “My wife is 22 years old. I don’t think the age difference matters to us. She loves me and I love her. Together, we have to sail the sea of life and drown in it.”

He smiled and added, “I sing to my wife to appreciate her.”

Over the din of the afternoon traffic, Faheem sang the first verse of the song Ye Jo Chilman Hai by Mohammad Rafi from the movie Mehboob ki Mehndi.

Ye jo chilman hai,
Dushman hai hamari,
Kitni sharmeeli dulhan hai hamaari,
Doosra yaahaan phir kiun rahay,
Ishq aur husn k darmian kyun rahay

“Do you plan on having kids? What about family planning?” I asked.

“Whatever Allah has planned for us, we will accept. We don’t practice family planning in our community, but I am sure of one thing, I will put them through school so that they don’t end up in the same profession as me.”

Raja, Faheem's brother pulls a cart with freshly laundered clothes.
Raja, Faheem's brother pulls a cart with freshly laundered clothes.
Waseem, Faheem's brother loads a pack of laundered and sunned clothes for delivery to customers.
Waseem, Faheem's brother loads a pack of laundered and sunned clothes for delivery to customers.
Faheem sorts clothes separating the white from the colored..
Faheem sorts clothes separating the white from the colored..
Faheem mans a washer as part of his job.
Faheem mans a washer as part of his job.

Faheem then got up and headed to his workstation. He put in a batch of clothes to wash and set the timer for an hour.

I asked him if there was anything else he wanted from life now that he was married. He replied with a smile, “Nothing. All I want from life is to support my wife and the kids we’ll have together.”

How I met my second love in Japan — The story of Miraj Japaniwala

Miraj is 45 years old and married with six children: two daughters and four sons. The dhobis call him Miraj Japaniwala. He is a soft-spoken individual with an easy going attitude. Over a cup of chai, we sat outside his shop where he shared his time in Japan.

“In the year 1988, my brothers helped me travel to Tokyo. I was 17 years of age. I went to find work. At that time, many friends were moving to Japan for better economic opportunities. I had left school in the sixth grade because I had to support my family’s expenses after my eldest brother fell ill.”

Miraj’s son came down with a packet of old photographs. Miraj owned a film camera and had used it during his stay in Japan. We began to flip through each one, as Miraj guided me through, narrating the time and context. The exercise acted as a window into a slice of his life.

Miraj at 17 years cooks food as he tries to settle into a Japanese environment.
Miraj at 17 years cooks food as he tries to settle into a Japanese environment.
Miraj enjoys the summer at the Chibu beach in Tokyo,Japan.
Miraj enjoys the summer at the Chibu beach in Tokyo,Japan.
Miraj at a ski resort in Japan.
Miraj at a ski resort in Japan.
With the help of his brothers and friends Miraj begins to get familiar with the Japanese language and culture.
With the help of his brothers and friends Miraj begins to get familiar with the Japanese language and culture.

I asked him about the kind of work he did there.

“I did manual labour. I worked in vegetable packing, dry cleaning, newspaper printing, manning an assembly line and in construction too,” said Miraj.

“How did you learn to communicate?”

“I learnt the language from television, co-workers and friends. It took me about two years to get a firm grasp of the language.

“The Japanese language is complex. They have many words for one thing in different situations. There were language teaching centers, but I didn’t have the time commute to these faraway centres.”

“Did you feel lonely during that time period?” I inquired.

“Yes. I would stay alone in factory allotted rooms and to kill the loneliness I would take my car out and go for a long drive or watch Bollywood movies.”

Miraj and his coworkers are taken for a trip outside Tokyo which was organised by the company where he worked.
Miraj and his coworkers are taken for a trip outside Tokyo which was organised by the company where he worked.
Miraj and his brother at the Tokyo Disneyland.
Miraj and his brother at the Tokyo Disneyland.
Miraj, his brother and friends celebrate Pakistan's independence day at a friend's apartment in Tokyo.
Miraj, his brother and friends celebrate Pakistan's independence day at a friend's apartment in Tokyo.

He stopped at one picture. It was a photo of a friend and him in a car. Miraj elaborated:

“I was giving him driving lessons. A police car passed by us and stopped. My friend panicked and couldn’t start the car. The policemen approached us and asked who we were. We didn’t have my passport on me at that time. They called the immigration authorities to verify our identities. They decided to search my friend’s apartment and followed him there.

During the search, they found an army knife. They began to ask questions. My friend would have drugs smuggled under food cans. They were hidden behind a cupboard. Fortunately they didn’t search that area and only confiscated the knife.

“A few days later, a receipt for a parcel arrived at my place in my brother’s name. Coincidentally, my friend shared the same name with him. Usually, my family contacted us whenever they'd send something. They didn’t inform us about this parcel.

“I left for the post office to collect it. My friend met me halfway and said the receipt was for him. He went to collect his parcel. The authorities checked it and arrested him for smuggling drugs. He served six years in prison. I later realised it was a trap set up by the anti-narcotics authorities and I was very lucky. If I hadn’t met him midway to the post office, I would have ended up in prison myself.”

We continued to flip through the pictures. Miraj mentioned that he and his brothers travelled a lot through Japan. I stopped at one particular photo, where he was holding the hair of a Japanese girl. I asked him who she was.

Miraj smiled widely before saying, “That’s Hasaami Chan. Hasaami means 'scissors' in Japanese.” Noticing the intimacy they shared in the picture, I prodded him some more.

Miraj and Hasaami Chan.
Miraj and Hasaami Chan.

“The year was 1995. We met at her mother’s snack bar which was near my apartment in Chiba, Tokyo. She would come there and I made friends with her. Eventually, we began to go out and I would treat her to Indian and Pakistani dishes.”

“Did you guys fall in love?” I asked Miraj.

He blushed a deep red and replied, “Yes. Yes we did. She was a girl with good moral values, beauty, pure of heart and a lighthearted person.”

“Why didn’t you marry her?”

“I was already engaged to the girl to whom I am married today. Hasaami knew that and we agreed to just being friends.”

He looked down at their photograph, staring at it for some time, looked back up and went on:

“I really liked her. When I was leaving Japan, she came to see me one last time. She gifted me with T-shirts and a brown wallet. ‘Always keep this with you and you will never run out of money.’ She said.”

Miraj today at 45 years of age.
Miraj today at 45 years of age.
Handling a dryer, Miraj visits his shop twice a day.
Handling a dryer, Miraj visits his shop twice a day.
Miraj interacts with his customers.
Miraj interacts with his customers.

I asked Miraj if he was still in contact with her and if his wife knew about Hasaami. He said he was not in touch with Hasaami, but his wife did know about her.

“What did you learn during your time in Japan?” I asked him.

“I learned how to practice honesty and fairness, especially at work,” Miraj said.

I sipped the last sip of the chai. Miraj put the photographs back into the plastic polythene bag. I wished him a good evening, got onto my bike and rode off.