Krrriiiinng!!! The doorbell rang sharply within apartment 12B of Sunny Housing Complex.
It was 7:30 A.M. in the morning and the streets of Kolkata were buzzing with traffic and scorching in the glare of the great Indian summer right in the middle of July.
Arati, the overweight wife of Doctor Sameer Gupta, opened the door, looked and said, “Wait here Gangu, let me get the clothes and linen”.
Arati went inside and returned a few moments later with a bag containing the day’s laundry, “here, please bring these back positively by tomorrow morning! Doctor Sahib would need his white coat before leaving for work… make sure you starch it well and please take extra care of my silk tunics, they are really expense!”
The old man nodded in agreement, collected the bag of clothes and began walking towards his next customer’s home.
The old man was Gangu Dhobi, the local washer-man. Though his surname was Rawat, people had been calling him Gangu Dhobi from time immemorial, courtesy his profession, Dhobi, the Hindi translation for washer-man.
Gangu was nearly 62 years old and had already forgotten from when he had been in the profession of being a Dhobi.
“I guess maybe from the time I was a young boy! I really don’t remember… I can only recall that all my forefathers had always been in this profession… and it doesn’t really matter, because I only know how to wash clothes for a living…” he would tell anybody who asked him.
Every morning Gangu collected the dirty linen and used clothes from his customer households, returned to his dwelling, the Dhobi Ghat (dedicated washing area for all men and women in the profession) at the Bhawanipur slums, washed, cleaned and starched them and then sun-dried them over long nylon ropes.
At night he pressed the clothes with his charcoal heated iron. The next morning, he returned the fresh clothes back to his customers and collected his payments and further assemblage of unclean clothes and linen.
This was a routine that Gangu had followed all his life.
Often while relaxing under the shade outside the Dhobi Ghat, while drying the clothes and linen, Gangu pondered over his own journey…
Gangu remembered that he came to Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, almost 55 years ago, perhaps, when he was about 6 or 7 years old.
He knew that he was born in a village near Kharaghoda, a small town adjoining The Great Rann of Kutch, the seasonal salt marsh located in the Thar Desert in the Kutch District of Gujarat, India.
The only memories he had about his hometown were the stories his father used to tell him about the colossal desert of white sands and fables of the unexplained strange dancing lights, Chir Batti(ghost lights) that occur in the Rann.
Gangu came to Kolkata with his father, who too was a washer-man and taught him the trick of the trade. Gangu never remembered his mother, as she passed away when he was only 3 years of age.
Gangu had lived in Kolkata ever since, with a dream in his eyes that one day he too would touch the magical white sands of The Great Rann of Kutch.
Gangu’s father too didn’t live long. At the age of 25, his father had married off Gangu to a local girl named Malti… a girl who became the woman of Gangu’s life… a woman who he learned to love and admire… a woman who gave Gangu his beloved son, Vijay.
However, she too passed away a few years after childbirth. She suffered from pneumonia and couldn’t recover from her ailment.
On the night of her passing away, Gangu had held his 5-year-old son close to his bosom, clutching his only belonging, his only child, his only companion as close as he could and wept profusely for hours.
He never wept again after that night. He was determined to be strong. He paid the school tuition fee for his son and ensured that he gave everything that the young boy required.
However, Gangu had to be out of the household for earning his living and even though willing from within his heart, he could never dedicate his full time to his son.
As youth ushered upon Vijay, Gangu found that his own hair too had turned gray, as if in a flick of an eyelash.
Time indeed flew by. The young blood in Vijay had distanced him from his father, who was old and was a mere Dhobi… a profession that Vijay despised.
However, the father-son duo sat together at supper every night and spoke a few words. After all, Vijay was Gangu’s only companion in life.
That morning, Gangu’s head was whirring with the incident of the past night. He was unable to wipe away the thoughts, the way he wiped away the sweat from his forehead. His only companion, his son Vijay had left him forever.
Gangu felt bitter, sad and angry… a cocktail of emotions that rocked his heart and body.
Vijay, a 22-year-old lad, diligently followed a local conman, who had promised him great job opportunities in life! Gangu had tried in vain to convince Vijay against his master.
At night Vijay had packed his belongings in a tin suitcase, came to Gangu and said, “Father, I never wanted to be a Dhobi…. I am leaving for Bombay and there I would get good job and big money. Don’t stop me, let me make my own life… I will write to you when I can.”
Gangu didn’t protest any further, he didn’t have any more words.
He said, “Stay safely and live honestly my son. Don’t worry about me, I will be fine.”
He hid the tears of loneliness behind his own shadow, while sitting quietly outside his Chawl (temporary hut). The dim light of the street lamps threw long monstrous shadows from the adjoining huts and trees around the Bhawanipur slums where Gangu had lived his entire life.
His own shadow hiding his tears, mixed in harmony of the larger shadows and played hide and seek with the street lights and the moonlight.
In the morning Gangu found himself all by himself in his empty Chawl. His world had suddenly become completely vacant. Unable to bear the loneliness he had started for work, heading for the households to collect the day’s laundry that he would wash.
At 8:30 A.M in the morning, Gangu had exhausted his list of customer households and walked towards his all too familiar Dhobi Ghat.
As he walked past the children’s park, at a corner, under a tree he saw a Sadhu (a soothsayer) sitting with folded legs. The man was dressed in an indigo colored robe and had grey long beard. He had an indigo colored sheet spread in front of him in which he had put on display an assortment of fake gemstones, bird feathers and wooden boxes to bless his prospective clients.
As if drawn by a remote power, Gangu went and sat beside this soothsayer, putting down his pack of unclean linen and clothes near his own feet.
Though he never believed in such tricks, Gangu, driven by his grief moist heart spoke, “what will I do now? I don’t have anybody else in this world… I feel so lonely, I cannot understand it, nor am I able to overcome my grief…”
The Sadhu, rolled his eyes (and did a few more tricks with his hands and chanted a few gibberish) and then suddenly pulled out a broom of thin sticks and struck a blow on Gangu’s head.
Totally unprepared for this action, Gangu winced with surprise and stood up in a shock.
“Don’t worry son… this blow would open your eyes to see the greater sorrows, it will help you find a way… now sit down and let me give you a few gemstones to help you heal faster…” uttered the Sadhu.
Already regretting his decision to sit with this cheater, Gangu picked up his packet and ran!
“I already have enough on my plate and don’t require gemstones from some fake soothsayer…” he shouted while running.
Back at the Dhobi Ghat, Gangu put down his packet, opened it and arranged the clothes and linen according to the household they belonged to. There were clothes from Doctor Gupta and tunics from his wife, school uniform of Mrs. Mehra’s son, shirts from Mr. Das who was a clerk at the government bank and sarees from Mrs. Banerjee who was a receptionist at a big hotel.
It was just past 10 A.M. and one by one Gangu watered the clothes and added the washing soap, trying to keep away the thoughts of his recent loss. The blow from the Sadhu’s broom was also fresh on his forehead, where it had left a small cut.
Gangu, picked up the white coat of Doctor Gupta and banged it on the concrete slab (specially made for each washer-man at the Dhobi Ghat to beat all the dirt out) in front of him.
As the wet coat smashed on the concrete slab, splashing little drops of soap water everywhere, a flash of events went past Gangu’s eyes. As if in a blaze of bright light, Gangu saw Dr. Gupta rubbing his hands violently in his coat, trying to get rid of the unsuccessful attempts of being unable to cure a patient who was slowly dying. He saw that the Doctor was sobbing by hiding his face within this coat and trying get rid of his inability to cure the patient.
In a shock, Gangu threw away the coat… he was unable to grasp his visions! The other washer-men around him gave him awkward glances and then returned to their own chores.
Grabbing his wits together, Gangu picked up the coat, put it beside his feet and grabbed the school shirt of Mrs. Mehra’s son.
As the wet shirt smashed again on the concrete slab, splashing little drops of soap water everywhere, a flash of new events went past Gangu’s eyes... In a flash of bright light, Gangu saw the little boy wiping his forehead on his sleeves while the other boys in school bullied him for not being able to play good soccer. The boy was terrified to confront his classmates, in shame, and hid behind a pillar and cried.
Gangu stopped his work… he was unable to understand his visions. He picked up some other cloth and as he washed it he saw a vision of the person who had worn it! Gangu, couldn’t fathom whether he was daydreaming or becoming crazy!
The Sadhu’s words struck him suddenly… “Don’t worry son… this blow would open your eyes to see the greater sorrows, it will help you find a way…”
Unable to believe himself Gangu took the clothes and began washing them furiously, as if to thrash away all the sad visions that whizzed past his eyes each time he tried to work.
The next morning Gangu returned the starched and ironed clothes to his customers and collected his payments and also the laundry for the next day.
As he began his washing, Gangu’s visions reemerged, however this time they comprised of different stories. Gangu felt that as if he was re-living the sad and painful moments of the past day of the wearers of those clothes…and he furiously continued to thrash away all the sad visions that whizzed past his eyes.
The next morning something new happened. At Doctor Gupta’s house, as Gangu collected the clothes for the next day, he saw a group of people speaking with the Doctor…
One of them said, “Doctor Sahib, you have brought back our patient from the deathbed…you are a god!”
“No sir, I am just a Doctor, but I must say yesterday there was a miracle and as I treated your patient, I felt a new zeal and his body too reacted so well to my treatment that within a day he has shown marvelous progress…”
“What are you listening to Gangu…” interrupted the Doctor’s wife…
“Oh… they are a patient’s family who have come to thank him… actually, you know, he wore the white coat you washed so well and returned yesterday… I guess you deserve a share of this good luck too!” she smiled mischievously while giving Gangu his payment.
After he had come out of the doctor’s house, Gangu wondered about her words and proceeded to his next customer’s home, the Mehra household.
At this house, Mrs. Mehra’s son looked quite happy as he spoke with his father telling him how his friends had stopped bullying him after he won the chess championship at school and defeated all the senior students the last day.
Though nobody said anything, Gangu assumed that the boy had worn the same uniform that Gangu had washed.
Hence the incidents continued for the next couple of days… Gangu continued to get his visions of the sorrows of men, women and children who wore the clothes and Gangu thrashed them, shattered them and cleaned them out of their sadness for a fresh beginning.
Almost a month had passed since Gangu discovered his visions. However much he tried, his own pain, his own loneliness never left Gangu’s heart. Gangu, had nobody to even share his supper with.
It was a Sunday, night and the city of Kolkata was preparing to go to sleep. The Dhobi Ghat was empty, as the washer-men and washer-women were enjoying their only day-off in a whole week.
At about 9 P.M. in the night, a few local kids were roaming around the Dhobi Ghat when they saw Gangu sitting in front of his washing slab and vehemently washing his own clothes.
He was beating his shirts, pajamas and shawl with such fervent that he didn’t even notice when the boys asked him why he was cleaning at that odd hour of the night.
Gangu’s eyes were focused on the froth that came out with the dirt and water as the clothes smashed against the concrete slab…
The kids only heard a faint murmur, “Go away… go away you dirty, you ugly…”
The kids didn’t pursue Gangu any further, and went away.
The next morning, neighbours found Gangu’s Chawl empty and its door wide open. Gangu was gone… nobody knew where he went. Nobody ever found out what he was doing or where he was.
Perhaps that night Gangu was washing away his old memories, his old sorrows and grief and his sad visions far away from his soul.
Perhaps the soothsayer was a hoax, and Gangu’s visions were his mere imaginations… but they were real enough for him to come out of his shell.
One might wonder that Gangu was finally able to visit his village and the colossal desert of white sands and fables of the unexplained strange dancing lights, Chir Batti (ghost lights) that occur in the Rann.
Perhaps the journey of Gangu Dhobi would never come to an end… perhaps, perhaps…