Kurangu munjellam oray munju
‘All their monkey faces look the same.’
(Tamil proverb about the Europeans during the British Raj)
In the old days, the donkeys still had work. Dhobis would drive them to the bungalows where soiled laundry was inventoried into notebooks, tied into twin bundles and hoisted onto the backs of the little gray animals. The donkeys would then stagger down to dhobi kanal, the place where the streams from Kodai Lake and Bear Shola converged around the edge of the government high school’s playing field.
It was here that the dhobis lived in their cement row houses. They would beat the clothes smooth against river rocks, wring them out, and then spread them to dry on the grass. Or hang them on long twisted lines.
The entire town’s laundry would flap in the breeze, all those sheets and colored saris, shirts and sets of underwear. And when there wasn’t any sun, as was often the case in Kodai, the dhobis would hang the wet wash in rooms and light fires to drive away the dampness. The clothes would be starched, flattened and creased with charcoal irons, inventoried, and packed into bundles to be hauled back up the hill.
Donkeys hate being treated like donkeys. They see themselves as ponies who should be fed carrots, or at least allowed to wander around in peaceful little herds. Donkeys that would refuse to work would be beaten with sticks. If they would continue to kick and bite, the dhobis would brand their shoulders into crisscross wounds that oozed till finally their spirits were broken.
The dhobi who serviced our neighborhood was Akkaiah. He was tall and dark with massive hands, and he always wore an old fashioned turban.
When our Tamil grandmother Packiamma was a young mother, she worked for Mrs. Stengle on Longcroft Compound, assisting her as she ran a small hostel for Kodai School kids. Packiamma knew Akkaiah well.
One day during rainy season, Akkaiah came to Longcroft as usual to collect the laundry. After sorting through the muddy jeans, stale socks, and underpants of the boys and girls, he was asked to wash the soiled clothing of a visiting American. Packiamma had never seen such a tall man, but for all his height, he seemed rather dull, for he didn’t speak a word of Tamil.
Several days later while sweeping crumbs from the dining room floor after breakfast, Packiamma heard shouting on the drive way. Two men were fighting, one in Tamil and the other in English. Packiamma rushed out and saw the tall American pointing aggressively at the dhobi.
“Don’t you lie to me! I know about you people!”
“Your big size under pant me stealing!”
“You promised that every piece of my clothing would be returned. I suppose you thought I wouldn’t notice if you swiped a pair of my socks and some underwear. I can only imagine how you’ve been robbing your customers blind.”
The dhobi began to rumble.
“Ithuvarikkum, oru sock um, oru button um miss illa. Naan thief ‘nu soldringalaa?”
“I have no idea what you’re saying but you better get me my things pronto or I’ll haul you down to the police!”
“Naan evalavu kashtapattu mazhaikaalathil river ille yerungi, ice water il thuni wash pannitu evalavu coldaa theriyumaa? Kai kaal kodaichal, bayangamaana headache, evalavu fever anaalum, unga thuni dry pannittu, ella cleanaa iron pannittu, madakki kattittu konduvanthirukeyn! Ithu thaangamudiyaathu. Enough!”
Akkaiah grabbed the man’s bundle of neatly pressed laundry and marched towards the garbage pit in the shady part of the pear orchard.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going!”
A fine rain was falling, making bubbles in the muddy orange footprints on the driveway. The big American followed the dhobi with clenched fists. Even though Akkaiah was tall, the foreigner was a tree among men. Akkaiah turned and braced himself. Packiamma glanced at the rotting juice oranges and kitchen scraps in the pit and began to wave both arms at the dhobi.
“Kadavulay! Tsumma give him his clothes. None of us want trouble.”
“Poh, ma. This is not your concern!”
Akkaiah looked the big man in the eye and hurled the clean laundry onto the garbage dump. The big American rushed at him. As his heavy arm came crashing down, Akkaiah grabbed the white man’s wrist and held it at bay.
Mrs. Stengle came running. “What’s going on here? Stop at once! Please!”
The big American finally wrested his arm free.
“This man has stolen my clothing and when I confronted him, he threw my clean laundry into that filthy pit. Look!”
“I not a thief, madam. You know very well. This telling lies too much!”
Akkaiah turned and stomped up the trail to the bungalow, struck his donkey with a switch, and hurried down the drive. The three watched in silence as he crossed the wooden cow gate and turned down the road towards the English Club.
One afternoon a few days later, Packiamma was in the back stoking chunks of damp firewood into the cast iron water boiler. Her 3-year-old son Raja was playing with his friend Donny Stengle.
A loud meow. A yowl.
“Daai! I’m going to skin the two of you and toss the shavings in the garbage pit! How many times do I have to tell you: Don’t Throw Eucy Nuts At The Cat!”
The cicadas were pulsating in the eucalyptus trees. A thick mist swirled from cliffs and smudged the edges of the bungalow. As Packiamma blew through the rusty boiler door, black eucy smoke stung her eyes and nostrils.
“Amma, a man is there.”
Packiamma turned to see the dhobi in his tattered black suit coat leaning against the weathered stone wall of the bungalow. In his hands was a little packet wrapped in newspaper.
“Call Madam. I wish to speak with her.”
When Mrs. Stengle arrived, Akkaiah explained that he had found the big American’s missing items in the drying shed. His new hired girl had neglected to pack them into the correct bundle.
“I send her off, useless girl,” the dhobi said. “Please, madam, will you take me to big size durai?”
The three walked down the root-studded orchard path, out across the little patch of elephant grass, and down to where giant cypress trees loomed over the duplex of Misty Cove. Mrs. Stengle knocked.
“Yes?” The big American ducked as he came through the doorway.
After Mrs. Stengle explained what had happened, the dhobi approached the big American with a somber look and handed over the socks and underwear.
“I’m very sorry, sir.”
The big American’s face took on a pained expression.
“No, I’m the one at fault. I should never have accused you of stealing. And then raising my arm in anger. I am deeply ashamed.”
“Give me laundry again, sir. I wash it and iron too.”
After handing the bundle to the dhobi, the big American held out a pair of hundred rupee notes, a vast sum in those days.
“No sir.” Akkaiah pushed the money away. “I go and come now.”
Packiamma is gone now and Akkaiah too. The pear leaves that bore witness to those events have long since fallen into earth. The dhobi’s donkeys hung around for a number of years before dying of neglect. Their descendants wander free.
The streams converge around dhobi kanal, pause for a few moments, then plunge to the plains of Palani and onwards to the sea.