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In the midst of a sprawling outdoor laundry, your attention is drawn to little Jamal running up to his mother or Circuit speaking to Murli (Munna Bhai) - scenes from Slum Dog Millionaire and Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, two most successful Bollywood flicks at the box office. The set in the background, however, is no fiction but was shot on location at the well-known Dhobi Ghat of Mumbai located at Saat Raasta near Mahalaxmi Railway Station. A place where rows and rows of scrupulously washed laundry spread across clotheslines, hundreds of dhobis in knee deep frothy white water within interlocking grids go “thud, thud” thrashing dirty laundry of the city against a flogging stone.

The Dhobi Ghat stretches up to 4 acres of land within which small winding ‘gulleys’ lined with shanties and workrooms of the dhobis, who work at the adjacent wash area, exist. The place dates back to around 1890 – a pre-independence India when the area was meant for washing laundry for the English and the Parsi people. Post-independence, Dhobi Ghat got an authorization of being “an urban working community” and the land was transferred to the Dhobi Ghat Association. It falls under the industrial zone of Mahalaxmi and each day sees tons of dirty laundry dumped from all corners of the city including hospitals, hotels, spas and recycled cloth dealers to name a few. These clothes find new life in the chafed hands of the dhobis who dedicate their entire lives to this service without which perhaps Mumbai would be missing out an integral part of its existence.

Once you step into the Dhobi Ghat, the air is heavy with the strong smell of detergent where foamy suds and shimmering drops of water burst up in the air as strong hands slam huge clothes on flogging stones within hundreds of identical cement cubicles.  There are channels running across the place carrying the dirty water out, and huge blue drums of water and raw chemicals that are brewed and mixed for washing are kept close to the dhobis, some of whom spend their entire day in the sudsy water of the ghat. Ropes tied all around by bamboos as close as possible to make the best use of space to dry thousands of clothes per day fill the space, and busy porters sweep past the ghat carrying piles of clothes. Though modern automated machines to wash and dry linen have intruded the place now, the dhobis still prefer the traditional way of manually washing clothes with little help from the giant machines.  Everything here is done meticulously with a section of the Dhobi Ghat dedicated to boiling water and soaking dirty and sometimes infected clothes from hospitals while the washing is done in the cubical and the laundry finally dried in another part, with whites dried separately. The clothes are then pressed with old-style irons filled with coal and folded to be finally carried away to their respective destinations by the porters on their backs, on bicycles or handcarts.  The ghat has been organised by the dhobis themselves, and the fact that not a single cloth item, out of almost two lakhs clothes per day, goes missing is an indication of the discipline they follow in this urban slum enterprise. They have a coding system too wherein they mark the address and owner of the clothes on little scraps of cloth. A family owned business, this profession is handed down generation to generation, and each family has its own clients and their specific work like washing, drying, ironing or dispatching, which they follow religiously.

Dhobi Ghat today has become a popular tourist destination especially after the release of the movie by the same name and since it made its way into the Guinness World Record on 8th March 2011, when 496 dhobis were working together. People flock here to capture images of the place from the flyover near the Mahalaxmi train station to marvel at this remarkable labour-intensive trade that runs smoothly, undisturbed and with so little modernization even in the 21st century. The Dhobi Ghat, where approximately 7500 people live with most of them being migrants from other parts of India, works 24 hours a day with the mornings being the busiest hours.    You can enter the Dhobi Ghat for an impromptu visit by paying a few hundred rupees to the local ‘guides,' or make an organised trip arranged by any of the local tour operators who specialize in reality tours of the city.

‘Slosh’ goes the clothes into the water, generous amounts of detergent applied to them, then the repeated “thud, thud, thud” on the flogging stone, clothes gurgling in boiled water and drip-dried, pressed linen finally dispatched to the owners. Thus, the largest open-air laundromat runs year after year, day in and day out with the inhabitants working generations after generations to keep Mumbai’s laundry clean with the whites a crisp bluish-white and the coloureds bright and ready to wear.