In the second week of the countrywide lockdown, precisely on April Fool’s day, the electric iron came out of the almirah in my house as a talismanic box. The neighbourhood laundry service and the ‘istriwallah’ on the AIIMS campus had closed. The redoubtable South Delhi residents were waking up to undertake household chores. Washing, drying and ironing clothes together took the top position on the laundry list of tasks. From that day, the whole act of ironing clothes gave me a renewed expression of living, for oneself and for others.
‘You have to iron your own uniform,’ standing tall in his pressed khaki police uniform, my father looked at me in a businesslike way. As an 11-year-old, in 1964, I was not much of a help inside the house. I undertook the daunting task of unravelling the full might of the coal iron box, much different from the convenient plug-and-use modern-day electric iron. One can say, the DNA scaffold does not mean the father is a previous edition of the son. The iron box, cleaned of stain and soot, with red-hot burning charcoal pellets inside, was unwieldy for my grip. Yet, I liked the heady aroma of the smoky charcoal and loved to balance several activities — of keeping handy a bowl of water to sprinkle over and straighten the creases, blowing away the soot which came out of the box, and not allowing the sweat of (one’s) brow dripping onto the clothes. The accomplishment of ironing a pair of uniform and keeping it folded inside a tin suitcase was indelible. Even to this day, 55 years later, my elder septuagenarian sister, a gynaecologist, gives a narrative spin to my bond with the coal iron box, ‘The suitcase contained his pressed clothes and it used to be locked.’ When I left home to join the graduate medical course, the laundryman in the hostel took away this task.
Covid-19 has refreshed my ironing practice. I have taken to the electric iron, like a duck to water. The skill set was never lost. The medical curriculum, with its didactic and clinical components, imparts lifelong skills for saving humanity. Despite the odd and inevitable failures, healthcare will ride over the present global pandemic, and this novel flu virus will not remain a menace forever.
The renewed bond of ironing the piles of bed sheets, towels, and clothes of family members demands higher resistance performance. In 1901, MA Rutherford wrote, ‘Indian dhobi is the meekest of men.’ It sounds egregious, when those men had quietly laundered clothes for the gora sahebs, memsahebs and their babalogs. After 120 years, the lived-in colonies at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi dhobighat, Kolkata’s Ballygunge dhobikhana, and Old Washermenpet in Chennai defy the statement. The world order, post-Covid, will look secure when those trustful and energetic women and men resume the laundry services in our neighbourhoods. ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’
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