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Monsoon of Memories: The Dhobi with an Elephant Memory

By Purva Grover Email By Purva Grover
May 2023
Monsoon of Memories: The Dhobi with an Elephant Memory

He sits under the tree, it has been his spot for decades now. To date, I am yet to know who is the older of the two—him or the tree. Both have been around forever, or at least ever since I was a toddler.

Both have been pretty important elements of our little community. As children, we’d swing on the branches of the large banyan tree under which he had set up his makeshift space. Once we were done playing, we watched Dhobi Bhaiyya working tirelessly under the tree.

Intrigued by the sight of the piles and bundles of clothes in front of him, I often asked him how he managed to remember which bundle belonged to which home. There were no name tags like we had on our school notebooks. He said, “I have the memory of an elephant.” And that would always make us giggle. He entertained us for a while and then sent us off to our homes. It was not safe for children to be jumping around the iron, he told us.

As for Dhobi Bhaiyya, who has, over the years, gone by various names and titles—from Arun Uncle to Arun Bhaiyya to Dhobi Bhai to Istriwala—he’s the neighborhood’s caretaker in more ways than one. He’s someone who is always ahead of the game—the table, which he uses to iron clothes and where sits the very heavy, coal-fed iron, is where he attends to our many situations, without us having to keep track of them!

Decades later, as I look back, a few such scenarios warm my heart, much like the warmth that I felt when I held the freshly ironed clothes closer to myself.

Let’s start with the banal, routine one. As children, we had specific uniforms for certain days, all white for half-day Sports Saturday, a specific house color tee for House Wednesday, and many more in addition to the regular uniform! It was Arun Uncle, who reminded us of the same. How did he keep track that we had not returned a particular set for ironing for the upcoming day! (Why, his elephant memory, of course!). He made sure we were always in the right colored uniform and got no black star in the school diary.

There are clothes and then there are wedding clothes, and the latter need full attention when it comes to ironing. There is Zardozi saree or salwar-kameez which needs to be ironed inside out. Then there is the delicate chiffon chunni or the lehenga which nobody knows if it needs to be ironed or not! For all these and many more quandaries, welcome Arun Uncle and we’d breathe in peace knowing our clothes were safe.

On the few days when we bundled up the clothes and accidentally dropped “gharwale” clothes in the lot, he returned them or ironed them withoutany charge! We smiled guiltily and thanked him for the reminder.

On days we realized “we have nothing to wear,” we headed to the balcony and shouted out to him with a special last-minute request, and he always ungrudgingly attended to us.
He still sits under the same tree and is as keen a listener and as diligent a caretaker of our community’s wardrobe.

Does your neighborhood have a dhobi too, silently attending to his job and making sure the crumpled bundles of clothes reach you in neatly folded piles, month after month, year after year? Even as they remove wrinkles from our clothes, their own hands grow more wrinkled. But they carry on—much like the banyan trees.


Purva Grover is an author, journalist, poet, playwright, and stage director. A postgraduate in mass communication and literature, she is the founder editor of The Indian Trumpet, a digital magazine for Indian expats in the UAE. She can be reached at grover.purva@gmail.com. To comment on this article, please write to letters@khabar.com.


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