Saturday, July 15, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 6: The Men Who Iron/Press Your Clothes




Many years back in school I had read Victor Hugo recounting the point of view of a cobbler whose shop is strategically placed below the ground level. From the small window of the place the cobbler could see the people walking in the street; not their faces but their feet and the shoes they wear. In the story/novel (Les Miserable) Hugo speaks of the 19th century France. Though the country had already two centuries into its colonizing efforts elsewhere, in the streets of Paris nobody had seen people from elsewhere. Hence, from that nether world of shoes the cobbler could identify each person who walked in the street. Shoes could tell the stories of the people who wore them. Vincent Van Gogh painted a pair of shoes and Martin Heidegger explained the life of farmhands by simply looking at those shoes. By looking at their Sunday best and the netted veins in the hands of those three black men in the photograph John Berger told us which class those anonymous personalities belonged: the working class. Despite their best clothes they cannot hide their coarse palms that tell the stories of their daily toiling with life. A quarter of a century back I was standing in a queue at the Baroda railway station, conversing with the friends who too were with me in the queue to book tickets to their home towns and were talking happily in English. A man in the next line looked at curiously and with a little bit of irritation told his companion, ‘Look, these days labourers too talk in English’. He thought our deliberate choice of proletarian clothes (which is a pupa state when you are in the university only to come out as tuxedo wearing professionals in a few years’ time) as a sign of our profession deprived of dignity and class. May be he was too repulsed by the coarse hands, though he had obviously not read Berger and we had!


I look at the ironing people on the road side. They set up their shops (often telas so that they could come from somewhere and go back to the same obscurity) as attached to some dilapidated homes whose occupants desperately want to add something to their income by subletting these verandas for these hapless young man who ‘press’ people’s clothes from morning to evening. In the North people pronounce ‘iron’ with the ‘r’ heard. So it is something like ‘airan’. In school we were asked to keep the ‘r’ silent. But later in life the upper class taught me to roll the ‘r’s in order to sound really educated. Hence, my friends started rolling ‘r’s’ even saying ‘Parippu vada’ and ‘sambar’ (dal vada and sambar respectively) with rolling ‘r’s cutting themselves magnificent fools before us. I should say I have never fallen for accents. Let people reject me for having that rough and thick Southern accent. But that is not the case here. I would like to make a connection between the cobblers in the 19th century France and the iron men (;-)) of India. With the Marvel Comics Iron Man has a different connotation and he has a face of Robert Downing Junior. Therefore I would choose the common parlance ‘Press’. But still there is a danger. The journalists perhaps would never like to be equated with the people who ‘press’ their clothes too.


Language is one place where we could harness or loosen subjectivities. Look at this people who ‘iron or press’ our clothes. They are simply called ‘Press Wala’ But again the problem is PressWala could be journalists too. So we extract the subjectivity from this act of ironing and make it a verb. Hence we say, ‘kapda pressing ke liye de dena’ (give the clothes for pressing/ironing). The people who press the clothes do not have any name or face. I always think about my childhood when each person who did a particular work in the village had his/her name. The press person was ‘Gopi Annan’, the one who plucked coconut was ‘Tulsi Annan’ so on and so forth. Even the fisherwoman had a name and still she has. In the cities we have only the names of the service and add a bhaya or bahan to the service the subjective of these service providers are formed. So the driver loses his name as ‘Ramesh’ or ‘Ghanshyam’ and becomes ‘driver Bhayya’, which at once connote a distanced respect which is far away from the proximity of real respect and many miles closer to the geographical locations from where these service providers come. Press walas too do not have face or names.

When I say that I make a particular effort to chat up with these people do not think that I am trying to place myself above the rest of the people who do not do that. To be frank I too do not know the person who presses my clothes every week. I make eye contact with him whenever I pass by that way even if I do not have clothes to give him for pressing. I simply call out to him and ask how he is doing. He tells me, ‘Going great’. This simple human contact makes him happy as well as my conscience at peace. I know a boy from one of the press families who later became my personal driver for a year or so. His parents and relatives used to set up their press shops in empty plots around which the apartments had already come up. They know where their service is required. They go door to door collect clothes and deliver it on time earning good will and good money. One day I asked him whether they could wash clothes or not. He got literally infuriated and asserted that his family was not Dhobi family. Dhobis are traditionally washers of clothes. And in India we have large scale Dhobi ghats. Before the arrival of the Washing machines (it should be connected to the growing middle class in India as well as the increase in the number of working women who used to be the unacknowledged in-house dhobis), dhobis were indispensible. Even after the introduction of foldable ironing boards and very sophisticated pressing machines, most of the Indians do not prefer to iron clothes for themselves. So this pressing sector is still alive.



Young people who really do not belong to the Dhobi families come to the cities and as they come to know that the people from their own villages are working as pressing people in various parts of the city, they would readily join the team first as apprentices and delivery boys and soon as expert press-men. As the living standard of the localities increase these people branch out and set up their shops in those areas and also recruit more youngsters from their villages. In a pressing place where people have developed some sort of faith in the person who does the job, more and more people start giving the clothes and the clever boys of this clan soon start placing their telas in the alleys and terraces adjacent to the main shop. So a pressing shop gets automatically branched into a few outsourcing units. That means you deposit your clothes in the shop and when you go to collect it, you may get it from a couple of alleys away. Strategically inclined entrepreneurs in this field try to get the ironed clothes at the earliest from the outsourcing units and keep it with them for delivery so that they clients wouldn’t go and start giving to the next alley press person. That means there are economic and strategic relationships and hierarchies in this place too.


My point is to tell that how the press walas could identify you slowly with your clothes. If you are sending your kurtas regularly even if you send it with your errand boy they would understand where it is coming from and whose it is. They would know the quality of the clothes, attitude of the person and how he or she conducts with them directly. Hence, do not under estimate a person who irons your clothes. He knows everything about you as your personal doctor knows how weak or strong you are. Looking at the ‘health’ of the clothes they would assess how parsimonious or extravagant you are. By looking at your clothes they could even imagine what kind of job that you must be doing. From a stain in your clothes they could understand what you were doing with that particular piece of cloth. The profession gives them tremendous insight about the people who wear those clothes. Any profession, if the professional is keen, would give indications and directions to the personalities, events and incidents. A press wala who toils day in day out is also a human being who braves the summer heat and the pinching cold. But he has an insight about you. When he irons your clothes, remember he is ironing your personality.





(Images courtesy the Internet, for representational purposes only)

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