11-16-10 How Manjula Washes Clothes
Amazing, that the most common Indian method of washing clothes should have become a shoppers' by-word in the West. Watching how our housekeeper, Manjula, does the laundry gives me new appreciation for the supplies and appliances I enjoy back home in the States.
Still, I wash my own delicate garments during my turn in our Guntur bathroom, first thing in the morning, super cleaning my feet as I slosh the clothes gently around in a wide, shallow pan.. Sometimes I add my preferred soap –usually shampoo: profligate, but it works!-- along with a squirt of lemon juice (courtesy of the tree outside the kitchen window) or vinegar as water softener, and pre-soak a few items for Manjula to wash, rinse, and hang to dry, later. Last season, she repeatedly urged me to let her do it all. “ “It’s my work, after all, isn’t it?” she’d say.
But years of wardrobe depreciation by virtue (?!) of local laundry practices have made me cautious, erring on the side of preserving my sartorial supply. Plus, an early start allows them a chance to dry in the span of one day, rather than bringing dampness inside for the night and pre-empting the clothesline before tomorrow’s wash. Though modern Indian homes boast laundry machines, our Guntur home does not, and runs on the principles of a traditional schedule, which influences when the laundry gets done. It goes something like this, at least in Manjula’s book.
The housekeeper will sweep the gateway and sidewalk before entering the house. Next, morning tea will be served to each family member according to his or her preference and precedence, i.e. seniority, gender and/or their school, work, or travel timings. Two gas burners are used to heat tea, and bathwater for the squeamish, while last night’s dishes are rinsed and washed in cold tapwater, and breakfast is set in motion. Everybody must be served, and eat, in order of precedence, milk boiled to be, cooled, and set for the day's curd (local term for yogurt), rooms swept and mopped with disinfectant (to discourage bugs), lunch cooked, all interspersed with second and third cups of tea, and by then it’s nearly time for lunch…
Only then will our dirty clothes be collected and washed for the day. Manjula carries them to the thigh-high outdoor tap where she sorts and soaks them in buckets and a half-bushel tub, plenty of soap (‘plenty’ being what manufacturers wish everyone would use) and enough water to cover. Manjula’s usual ‘sorting’ is light vs dark, with brights negotiable, and heaven help any colors that run and mingle in the process. (Despite our urgings, cautions and catastrophes, white and light items continue to emerge from the wash in marbled shades.) Tougher spots receive a rub from bar soap containing bluing, before or after she carries them to a patio in front of the old bathing rooms. There she sits on a low stool, the vessels surrounding her within easy reach, presses everything to be sure the laundry’s thoroughly soaped and soaked, and begins to wash in earnest .
Lightly soiled items come first; she feels around for an item, lifts and lowers it into the water a couple times, deftly folds it into a forearm-length and slaps it against a large, rough-cut stone that slopes away from her knees. Okay, slap is an understatement.
Unless I watch and beg her to be gentler with my own clothing, Manjula has an easy time of venting any pent-up frustration as she whacks each item against the stone. It looks and sounds more like punishment. Sometimes she sucks air noisily in between semi-clenched side teeth, a sympathetic percussion to the rhythmic beat. Twenty, twenty five times if an item is grubby, ten times if there’s a lot to do or the item is small.
A bucket of plain water stands ready for the rinsing: dip, lift, dip repeatedly, lifting the garment an arms length from the water and plunging it back in following the water flowing from it. I’d practiced this motion out of curiosity for several years before recognizing the utility of it: the thrust and flow function like the agitator in an electric washing machine, but with less effort and results better than mere ‘sloshing.’. The rinse water clouds. There may or may not be a second rinse, for which I always plead, before the item is, again, deftly, re-folded to a forearm’s length, tightly twisted, and set aside.
The method is the same. Dip lift, plunge, repeat. The linens, which come last, understandably end up thickened with soap residue. Occasionally I am able to inspire a second or third rinse, with or without lemon or vinegar added for softening. The clean wet clothes are collected, an armful at a time, opened, shaken out, and flung over high clotheslines of wire, strung over one side of the back yard. Much of the line has been encroached by the three year old mango tree growing in that area. This year we’ve added new posts of zinc (more impervious to the elements than old bamboo poles, which have long since broken down) and clotheslines on the roof, which is reached by an outdoor stairway. Good for catching sun and wind, but not so handy to recover should, as in this long end of fall monsoon, a sudden rain catch us by surprise.
Late afternoons, Manjula will take the things down, whether dry or nearly dry. Should I suggest leaving anything on the line a little longer, I’ll find it there, absorbing the evening dews, long after Manjula has departed for the day. In any case, hooks and chairs in our quarters often sport damp clothes overnight, slowly post-drying under a ceiling fan.And that’s how Manjula washes clothes. ‘Gives new meaning to a term many Americans read only as trendy. ‘Stone washed.’