Thursday, February 25, 2010

The iron men

Kochi is full of Tamilian men who iron clothes for a living. They talk about the pressures and pleasures of their work

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Raju

It is a hot Tuesday morning. Perspiration dots the forehead of Raju as he lifts the heavy iron and moves it backward and forward over a white cotton shirt. Then he takes a wet cloth and rubs it on the shirt. Another round of ironing follows. Then Raju moves to the sleeves, collar, and the top. He takes about three minutes to press a long-sleeved shirt. “But if the cloth is starched, it takes longer,” he says. “The iron does not move freely over the cloth.”

On an average Raju irons about 100 clothes a day, at Rs 4 per item. “Most of them are shirts and trousers,” he says. He works from 7.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and uses the old-fashioned iron, in which you have to put pieces of coal. “I use up two kilos a day,” he says. The current price of coal is Rs 23 per kilo.

Raju’s table is placed near the entrance of a tailoring shop at Chembumukku and abuts a bylane. He pays a rent of Rs 1500 per month to use the space. As he converses, a man arrives with a large bundle of clothes. Raju looks at it, makes a mental estimate, and says, “I will give it to you tomorrow morning.”

At the end of the day, Raju goes back to a house on South Janatha Road, where 15 other dhobis stay. They are all from Tamil Nadu and are a close-knit group. On Sundays, they spend their time watching Tamil and Malayalam films on television or strolling down Marine drive. “Sometimes, we go to the Chottanikara temple,” says Raju.

One of Raju’s roommates is S. Kumar, 27, who came to Kochi in 2000. “My home town is in Tirunelveli,” he says. “I came here because there is not much work back home. I am able to earn more, but I have no plans to settle here.”

In fact, the regular complaint against the dhobis is that they take leaves of 10 days or more, after every two months or so, to go back home. “We miss our families,” says Kumar. “That is why we go back often. But we ensure that there is always a replacement, so the work does not suffer.”

They also do not suffer here at all. “Our Malayali customers are polite and well- mannered,” says Kumar. “They treat us well. I like Kochi and its climate.”

But Raju says that the rainy season makes a dent in his income. “Clothes take longer to dry, so customers don’t come so regularly.” Then he pauses and says, “Well, looking at it in another way, because of the monsoons, we get a chance to rest our hands.”

Yes, indeed, the iron weighs seven and a half kilos when filled with pieces of coal. These irons, brought from Madurai, at Rs 4500 a piece, are bigger and heavier than the ones made in Kerala. “When you work for hours together, your shoulder muscles begin to ache,” says Kumar.

Listening and nodding is Kumar’s uncle, Ayyappan, 42, who has been working in Kerala for the past 13 years.

When I tell him about the paucity of Malayali dhobis, because our society tends to look down on this type of work, Ayyappan says, with intensity, “Work is work. There is no high or low work. There is nothing wrong in being a dhobi. Malayalis can do the same job and earn well. Why is society against this type of occupation? I cannot understand this attitude.”

Apart from an attitude problem, Malayalis create a lot of problems. In Alinchuvadu, E.J. Sebastian has an ironing outlet, where he has hired two Tamilians. “I had employed Malayalis earlier,” he says. “But they were always demanding more money.” Sebastian pays Rs 300 per day to a dhobi.

But what was more galling, he says, was that the Malayalis were not professional enough. “There were persistent complaints by customers whenever a Malayali ironed a shirt or a trouser. They do not have the finesse of a Tamilian dhobi. That is why I prefer to hire Tamilians.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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