They know the sun will soon be up, those kooyils and crows and birds of the dawn. Across our village, mothers rise to make tea for sleepy-eyed children. Fathers douse their heads with cold water and wash away the night. Teeth are brushed. Coconut scented hair is combed. Whether dwelling in thatch or multi-storied bungalows, the villagers have an important decision to make today:
What am I going to wear?
They open their trunks, their closets, the faded curtains that enclose cement shelves. Which selvar set? Sari, plain or silk? Long-sleeved shirt, white or printed? Veshti, gold or green bordered?
What all these items have in common is that they were neatly pressed and folded by expert hands. This is the story of the people behind those hands, the masters of brass irons, the Vannar.
Their operation was huge in days past. The Vannar would move house to house, gathering the soiled clothing of the village. They identified each piece with an indelible symbol made from a special black marking nut. Each family was assigned their own symbol. Bulging bundles were loaded onto scruffy donkeys which were driven four kilometers across Bodi town to the Kurungani River. There, the people would set up camp for a few days, slapping the clothes on wet river stones, scrubbing mounds of foaming fabric, and rinsing in the flowing mountain water. Clothes were spread on hot bedrock to dry or hung from coconut ropes. The Vannar would load the donkeys up again, iron the clothes at home, and return each piece to its respective owner.
That was before the river dried up, the township supplied water to each street, the cost of living precluded hiring out the wash, and the more well-to-do switched to cotton knit which they washed in Whilrpool washing machines. The Vannar sold their donkeys and left the life of washing to dig in the fields and work in factories.
In our village, all that remains of their former profession are two old cousins, Naagan and Ramu.
Naagan goes street to street with his pushcart, ironing in front of clients’ homes. Ramu installed himself in the shiny red granite bus shelter, the one that a contractor built 50 meters from the bus stop. The ironing men charge five rupees per piece, no matter what the size.
I love watching Ramu work. It’s as though he polishes the fabric with his brass iron. The surface of his homemade table is covered with ten layers of folded cotton blankets and a blue checked cotton lungi. To the right is a bowl with water that he sprinkles over the clothes in the ‘inbox’. The charcoal iron had been lit in the morning and swung back and forth to awaken the red coals. Even when stationary, convection currents suck air up through the embers and out the little top vents.
His eyes twinkled. “You iron carefully.”
“But there’s no temperature adjustment.”
“Aaah. When the iron’s fully hot I do the heavy cottons and when cooler the silks and finally the polyesters.”
“Do you ever scorch the cloth or burn holes?”
He placed the iron on a flat kadappa stone and picked up a white shirt. “If I did, would I keep this job for long?”
“Where do you get the charcoal?”
He spread out the garment, it’s frayed collar smudged with bluing. “I used to buy charcoal cheap from housewives. Now that they’ve switched to gas, I have to buy it by the sack in Bodi.”
I watched as he folded the ironed shirt into thirds, then creased each shoulder into a symmetric pyramid.
“What about electric irons? Aren’t you afraid they will cut into your business?”
“There have always been ladies who iron at home with small charcoal irons. Electric ones? Half the time the power doesn’t work and the rest of the time the ladies don’t work.” He smiled. “TV serials.”
He started on a purple sari with pink flowers.
“The other day a lady with a new electric iron brought her laundry back to me. Her daughter-in-law kept burning holes in the fabric. Paying me was cheaper than buying new saris.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Maybe the girl was burning them on purpose.”
“Do any of your kids iron?”
“My three girls are married off. My oldest son is ironing in Silai and my second makes bricks in MC puram. Our little guy is studying in 12th grade. He plans to study in Polytech — what are those things that the government handed out to all the kids? Little flat boxes which look like a TV?
“Yes, that’s the one.” He handed me our folded laundry wrapped in an old lungi.
I paid my 120 rupees and buried my nose into the bundle, still slightly warm and damp. It was a fragrance I often associate with my mother and with being safe.
“So what do you think? Will your people still be ironing in twenty years?”
He finished folding the arms of a sequined black selvar top and placed it in the ‘finished’ pile. A crow swooped onto the bench and pecked at a pink plastic bag containing scraps of vadai. Ramu looked up.
“My wife died 8 years ago; I’m alone now.”
“Aiyoh. Sounds really tough.”
He nodded. “So, in response to your question, it’s like this. You doctors give injections and tablets. We, on the other hand, press clothes.”