Going to Dhobi Ghat

With a few short hours left in the bustling city of Mumbai, I flip through brochures of tourist attractions that I grabbed from the airport earlier today. Dhobi Ghat is found towards the end of my frantic search through these pages and pages of temples, arches, and shopping centers.

Dhobi Ghat is an area of Mumbai in which hundreds of washmen clean clothes by hand in concrete wash tubs and then hang them to dry outside. These jobs are usually passed on from generation to generation.

My mind instantly goes to a time when I was a child and my brother and I would watch my mom sort our dirty clothes into colors and and throw them in our oversized, off-white washer and dryer. Blue, black, pink threads would swiftly pass by our eyes as we tried to follow them until we felt dizzy and bored. I think to myself that watching people wash clothes is probably the last thing I want to do with my remaining time. Regardless, I am unanimously out voted by four of my closest friends and we direct our efforts towards finding transportation to this region of town.

As we approach Dhobi Ghat, my senses are soon working over-time to try to capture all the chaos. My nostrils are over stimulated by the smells of what seems to be a mixture of rotting fruit baked by the sun and body odor. I take a panoramic glance to see locals sitting behind stands selling their products for the day. Putrid fish, heads of lamb, wooden drums played by the vendors, colorful varieties of fruit, and rows and rows of vegetables are all in view from our taxi, which is currently playing “dodge the pedestrian.”

As we slowly make our way down the street, I see hundreds of white bed sheets folded in half over a clothesline through the cracks and man-made holes of a concrete partition.  I see the washmen’s children learning the trade that they will soon take over.  As the sea of white sheets quiver when the wind picks up, I am mesmerized by the overwhelming amount of labor this process must take on a daily basis.

Suddenly, I am awakened from my daydream by a quick rap on the taxi window. And then again. I turn to find an older looking man’s face, which appears to be the host of a pound of dirt on his leathery skin. As I stare into the eyes of this unfamiliar face, an anxious feeling starts to arise from the pit of my stomach.

More people realize the obvious features of a tourist—fair skin and light hair—and rush to the glass. Soon the air is filled with continuous bangs from the folded fists that obstruct our view of the outside world.

This is the most poverty stricken area I have seen so far. I couldn’t tell if the reason we are being harassed is because these people want money or because they feel resentful of the fact that we want to witness this extreme poverty for ourselves.  I feet guilty about our decision to come here and immediately persuade the taxi driver to turn back towards the exit.

The difference between the Dhobi Ghat children’s upbringing and mine are beyond fathomable. On our way out of this street, I think back to a more comfortable time of watching my family’s laundry roll around in our automatic dryer and wished for that comfort.

— Marcelle McCune


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