Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 1, Issue 17, Tuesday, October 7, 2003







cleaning up your act...

JACK and Jill went up the hill because they were silly kids trying to clean up their dirty clothes. Being clumsy, they slipped and came tumbling down. After that they decided to send their dirty laundry to professionals called "dhopa". No longer did they have to negotiate that treacherous hill to fetch water to wash clothes.

Okay, so maybe that's not how laundry started but that's the essence of it. The word dhopa originated from an old Hindu sect whose main profession was that of beating the dirt out of clothes. Even a couple of decades back they used to go door to door collecting clothes that were dirty, smelly or both. The next day, they would bring back the washed and ironed garments and hand them over to the housewives.

It's lazy human nature to make someone else do your work. The profession of making someone else do your boring laundry most likely started in Europe. Around the 15th century the military began such a service. The dhopa we talked of in the beginning were in India for ages. From there the business crept into Bangladesh as well. The business boomed with the Buriganga River becoming the main site for detergent pollution. The entire riverbed became a series of havens or ghaats for the entrepreneurs. They were even named according to some of the people such as Babughat, Gosai Ghat, Dhopa Ghat etc.

Change is inevitable and that change has brought an end to such personalized home service or washing clothes.

Wash by hand
The ancient method of washing clothes consisted of soaking the garments in a mixture of soap, powder and warm water. Pounding the garment as if it was the devil incarnate was a preferred method of releasing the dirt. A bit like exorcism. As times have changed such brutal behavior has softened somewhat. Launderettes now use chemicals according to the material and once soaked long enough, they scrub and rub the dirt out.

Babulal Das is a famous dhopa in Islambagh. His profession is an ancient one practiced by his forefathers. He takes care of about 50-60 of Dhaka's laundries. His huge area has cement slabs upon which clothes are scrubbed, brushed and hand washed. These are then rinsed in the feebly flowing Buringanga waters. The riverbed becomes a cornucopia of clothes hung out to dry.

Babulal Das explained how he uses his old methods of washing that are still applicable to clothes made now. Different materials require different types of soap and a different approach toward scrubbing. Everything has to be done in the right way to ensure that the material is not damaged. It is hard work but profitable.

He showed a stock of newly made wool sweaters that were soiled during making. These have to be carefully washed because machinery might wrinkle them. Babulal takes care of the clothes from many reputed laundries. A wry smile complements the addition that most customers are told that their material is machine-washed.

New age-Bandbox and Topclean
Bandbox steps in where the hand washing processes of Babulal leaves off. They can be considered the pioneers in automated laundry in our country. Everything from washing and drying to ironing is carried out by machines. Different machines wash clothes according to the material.

Bandbox started in 1989 and at first was run in collaboration with foreign support. At present it is completely directed by local people. Executive director S. S. Ahmed explained how all the machinery has been brought over from Europe and skilled technicians come over to train the local people. He also assured that none of the garments are washed by anything other than the machines. Chairperson Nahar Jamil is so particular about the quality of the work that she often goes around the plant to check on it.

There are 19 outlets of Bandbox in Dhaka with one in Narayanganj. Besides this they also provide outdoor cleaning service which provides service people to go to homes and offices to clean carpets, curtains, sofas etc. Their high level of quality has ensured a client base from the Prime Minister's office to local or foreign embassies and offices.

Topclean is a joint venture between Bangladesh and Singapore started in 1998. Their cleaning process goes through 5 different stages. It begins with a pre wash that soaks the clothes to get rid of excessive soil and soften the material. Next the clothes are soaked in detergent ion a re programmed machine with the appropriate chemicals and water temperature. In this way these are washed, dried and pressed. Factory manager Mamunur Rashid explained that they separate the clothes according to colors such as white, light, dark and check print. A special German detergent called Bufa Spot Remover is used for particularly stubborn stains. The machines they use are also from the same country and the famous Dubix and Unimac laundries use these. The clothes are pressed using a steam based pressing machine. For extremely dirty clothes they give at least an 80 percent guarantee.

They operate in 14 branches in Dhaka with one in Narayanganj. They provide an ID with which the customer can collect their material later if they lose the memo. Most of their services are availed by hotels, Dhaka Club, Uttara Club and British Airways.

The old school shops
According to the economic situation of our country about 70 percent of the people belong to the middle and upper middle class. They are the ones who have to maintain a strict reign on their budget and hence spending about 200 taka upwards a week for automated laundry isn't very feasible. In this respect they can resort to the local places where the wash is manually done. Hence the cost becomes affordable at about 100-120 taka.

One of the oldest establishments of this type is on Topkhana Road called Pinman D Paris. It started in 1952 when there was no automated service available. The business has been running in the same family for generations. Although they do a lot of work in the old fashioned way by beating and scrubbing out the dirt, they also use machinery to take care of the delicate materials. It's all in keeping with the times.

Lifa, established in 1965, is another of the old school laundries. Lee, the main person behind the works explained that nothing beats hand washing because Bangalies have a tendency to wear the same clothes several times. This pretty much locks in the dirt which machines cannot remove very well.

Most of the major services take in the clothes and send these off to their factories where all the washing takes place. The small shops in the neighborhoods mainly do the ironing. Other than that some small outfits do their own washing either in the dirty waters of Buriganga or even in their own homes using WASA water supply.

10-12 people operate the small washing factories and other than the usual hand scrubbing process they also use boilers. Although they say that washing in high temperatures do not damage the clothes, a combination of strong detergents will reduce your outfit to rags. Every day they deal with 1200-1500 pieces.

The lives behind the scenes
Some of the professionals have been in this business for generations. A lot of them belong to the Hindu religion and have to fall in the caste system. This makes their life difficult to begin with. Financial straits are a part of life. Babulal informed that after the advent of the machinery their work had decreased. They also get very little pay. A pair of pants and shirt will earn them about 3-10 taka whereas an upscale shop will charge 20-25 taka. Add to this the cost of water bills if the washing is done at home. This is a reason why a lot of washing is done in the Buriganga. Babulal does not think the business following old methods will last long. He is making sure his children do not have to follow this profession.

The automated establishments on the other hand are great for unskilled workers. A little bit of instruction can set them going for ironing, machine-operating etc. This is good for those coming in from the villages looking for a new job being low on physical work.

Cleanliness and hygiene of clothes
The nagging question about laundries is just how clean do they make our clothes. The claim by most of the places is that they can remove about 90 percent of the dirt and add a 100 percent guarantee as to its hygienic qualities. The point is, do they use any anti-bacterial chemical? Al the clothes are washed in the same water at the same time. This is explained by saying that the cost of water bills have to be kept down. Some cost cutting leads to washing in rivers. These rivers now carry so much pollutants form factories that people are almost destined to suffer from skin disease. The service ends up polluting the environment with dirty water, chemicals and smells.

Mechanized laundries on the other hand do not dish out so much in the form of pollution. The chances of getting skin diseases from river pollutants are much slimmer with machine-washed clothing. On the other hand, one has to wonder just how much there is to the claim that machines cannot remove all the dirt from the clothes.

In a non-developed country like ours we cannot expect very high standards of laundry service but despite that there is still the need to be aware of what the damages could be to the environment. The effects of detergents, for example, have been a matter of concern for environmentalists for a very long time.
Whatever the pros and cons may be, at the end of the day, when we put on that clean-smelling, freshly ironed shirt that we know will turn heads, we have to appreciate the time and the effort these laundries save us. No matter what minor complaints we may have about them, we cannot deny the invaluable services they provide us. So what if you got curry stains on your new sari? Laundry service hai na?

By Sultana Yasmin, Translated by Ehsanur Raza Ronny
Photo Munem Wasif



home | Issues | The Daily Star Home

2003 The Daily Star