Reactions to my odd and obsessive desire to visit Mumbai’s open air laundromat Dhobi Ghat was summarized well by my taxi driver from Jharkand, who, unaware that I could fully understand Hindi, told my mom: “She must be a foreigner if she came all the way here to see the dhobis wash clothes.”
Admittedly, the only reason I knew about Dhobi Ghat was because of the titular 2010 film by Kiran Rao, wife of the major Bollywood contemporary filmmaker Aamir Khan.The movie popularized a place that would have otherwise remained a modest and publicly unnoteworthy element of day-to-day Mumbai life. Everyday, hundreds of washers known as Dhobis in Hindi gather at the concrete squares near the city’s Mahalaxmi Railway Station and perform the generational task of hand washing clothes underneath the open Mumbai skies. Rao’s movie exposed the raw humanity of an often-ignored slice of life in one of the world’s most significant cosmopolitan hubs. And I wanted nothing more in India than to see the place with my own two eyes.
After a few laughs and subtle yet unsuccessful efforts to dissuade me from “wasting” my time on something so commonplace and unremarkable with an afternoon’s itinerary of big name tourist attractions ahead, I found myself at what I consider one of the most cinematic and truthful places in all of the Mumbai I’ve seen.
The zigzags of clothes hanging indifferently on parallel lines patterned the invisible open air ceiling of Dhobi Ghat with visual intrigue. As an aspiring documentarian and travel photographer, the presence of lines and layers in new and engaging social climates fill me with adrenaline unlike any other. Colors, movement, and a spirit of basic livelihood characteristic of Mumbai and Mumbai only.
What enraptured me the most was the motion of the Dhobis. Although most of the workers had dwindled under the looming thunderclouds, a sign of withdrawal from the outdoors for anyone fearing the mighty Mumbai monsoons, the few that remained performed strange beauty with their synchronized and then unsynchronized motions. Up, down, shake. Up, down, shake. There was grace in the cautiously casual arcing of their hands bringing clothes into the moist air and then down hard onto the stone. Humility, pride, life.
I begged and threw a bit of a tantrum to sell my case on how passionately I wanted to climb down into heart of action. But because Dhobi Ghat is circled by slums, it’s both dangerous and disrespectful to photograph without permission or some sort of structured approach. Though disappointed, I know that next time in Mumbai, seeing more of a place pouring with honest life will be a top priority.
If you find yourself near the Malaxmi Station in Mumbai with a few minutes to spare, visit Dhobi Ghat. It’s really a memorable and culturally standout experience.