Concept & Photos by Rahat Dar Text by Usman Ghafoor
Imagine a time when machines would replace men altogether. The very thought is terrifying. Among other things, where would that leave the entire world’s labour? For the poor washermen in this narrow, dingy gali, close to Seetla Mandir, inside the Walled City of Lahore, it’s a harsh fact of life whose signs they have begun to experience for the worse.
At their dhobi ghat (vernacular for laundry space), which is literally composed of a few dozen tubs made of bricks and cement, and accompanying water taps, scores of middle-aged men and women can be seen going about different related tasks — some would be sorting articles of clothing, others scrubbing and washing them, before they press them with heavy steam-iron at their homes nearby. A peculiar sound is created every time a washerman slaps a piece of cloth against the surface of the tub — it is audible a mile away, through the dead quiet of early winter mornings. These people start their day well before sunrise.
They have been in the ‘business’ for over a hundred years now; this is the only job they have known. Reportedly, this is the sixth generation of dhobis — before Partition they had a booming laundry business in Delhi; later, they were forced to migrate to Lahore.
Traditionally, dhobis have been part of every household, even in posh localities, before washing machines became common and the city got its many dry-cleaning and laundry shops.