Muthalakkulam launderers: Heydays long gone, decline in customers
During day time, a stretch of land with rows of triangular shaped structures made by a knotted pair of two wooden sticks. Washed clothes hanging and drying on those structures. Individuals raising and adjusting those structures according to the number of pieces and its weight. Some involving in wringing out the clothes once they are either dry or due to the looming chance of rain . While, in the evening, the same stretch of land will turn to a place where various socio-political groups hold their public meetings. This has been a peculiarity of the Muthalakkulam ground in the heart of Kozhikode. The ground is renowned for the orchestrated day-evening transition and is an important landmark in the city and has historic importance.
Meanwhile, Muthalakkulam, which is in the northern side of Mananchira, has many stories about the etymology of the place. Among them a popular narrative is that in the past there was a pond in the area which decides the luck and fate of the people who are summoned before the Zamorin’s administration, over alleged crimes. This pond supposedly had crocodiles and the people summoned will be asked to swim from one side of the pond to the other side. The belief was that if the individuals summoned have committed crime, then they will be attacked or killed by the crocodiles. If they have not committed the crime, the crocodiles will not harm the person. The narrative sounds like a cruel joke and the washerfolk of Muthalakkulam have been going through similar ordeal since a long time and the Covid-19 pandemic is the latest crocodile they have to encounter. Sadly, they have not committed any crime but various political, environmental, social and technological crocodiles have been pushing them to the edge.
Crocodiles which already exist
Muthalakulam washerfolk have been encountering many crocodiles. The first crocodile they encountered was the Indian caste system. In effect, it normalised and fixed the length and breadth of occupations they can aspire to. As they belong to a community (apparently Vannar caste) who are traditionally involved in laundry-related activities, generation after generation they follow it as a caste occupation.“I am now in my 50s. In my knowledge three generations before me were doing this occupation,” said Asha PV, a washerwoman. Now only around 45 families are actively involved in the occupation. More often, at least three members in each individual family are simultaneously involved in the occupation. Most of them make their entry in their 20s. While there are washerfolk who are in their 80s who earn daily bread from occupation. Some are located near the ground itself, while many are in a proximity of three to 10 kilometers. Meanwhile, there are individuals who do both laundry and ironing.
Apparently, there was a time when hundreds of families were part of Muthalakulam washerfolk and were in the proximity of the ground. During the British era, the washerfolk community was given the possession of the Muthalakulam ground, claim the washerfolk. Though the community find it is a respectful accolade, some cite this as yet another manifestation of patronization technique used during the colonial period.
Another crocodile emerged in the form of a political environment after Indian Independence. It is important to note that even after 75 years of Independence caste remains a subject not yet addressed. Data on socio-economic indicators specific to various castes, tribes and communities in India also reiterates this reality . The story is not so different in a state like Kerala, a place known for progressive achievements. It is also pertinent to note that in reality Kerala is nowhere near what social reformers of the past imagined for the state. That does not mean nothing good has happened in the state towards addressing the caste issues. Nevertheless, the Muthalakulam washerfolk have similar experiences like dalits, tribals, adivasis and indigenous communities on the way they are being treated in 21st century Kerala .
Rukmani Amma, an elderly washerwoman, explained about the third crocodile--losing sheen of business. “The main sources of clothes are hotels and lodges around. Though there are many hotels in the city, it is difficult to get at least 25 sheets a day. For each some get Rs 5 and some others may get Rs 10. It varies from person to person. To get some kind of profit from the occupation one has to get at least 300 sheets. Or else the money will be just enough to meet the transportation cost spent on collecting and delivering the items, cost of washing soda, washing powder and sanitizing liquid. This is basically a piece work job and we do not get any money to bear the cost other than the piece rate agreed for the sheet,” she said. Notably, the emergence of technology driven laundry business in the organised sector and its expansion in the city has drastically changed the lives of washerfolk.
Yet another crocodile that has been troubling the washerfolk is the unpredictable rain pattern in Kerala. Though they have been successful in managing weather conditions, the prolonged monsoon-like situation and long duration rain in the state is affecting the delivery of the clothes.”We will get money only when we deliver the washed clothes. We always look into the sky and manage our work. Nowadays, we are not able to judge when it will stop raining . We only get day time when there is ample sunlight. If there are rains we have to wring out clothes before getting it dry,”said K Amutha. However, some hotels allocate special places for drying clothes.
At some junctures, the washerfolk had also gone through a crocodile called risk of eviction. Around 13 families in the Muthalakkulam were rehabilitated for the construction of roads in the region. Though initially they were relocated to temporary makeshift facilities in multiple places, now they are having proper housing facilities. Similarly, a few years back there was a plan to convert the Muthalakkulam ground to a parking plaza. Petinently, many switched to other occupations when the threat of eviction loomed. However, due to criticisms and protests, the corporation made an U-turn. It is learnt that the plan is dormant now.
Covid-19 pandemic, the 'latest crocodile
The plight of individuals in the unorganized sector during the pandemic period affected Muthalakulam washerfolk. The hotels and lodges remained closed during lockdowns and Covid-19 curbs. The clothes were not reaching the washerfolk. Similarly, individual customers who used to approach them on the spot have come down. The fear over the spread of virus and slacked economic activity battered the community. During the lockdown period, the number of families involved in the laundry work plummeted to around 20. Some relocated from the place in search of new occupations. They even stayed with relatives as they cannot afford to manage their livelihood. When Covid-19 restrictions were gradually lifted some resumed the laundry work. “No one is ready to take up this occupation now. It is not profitable. I am surviving because this ground is near to the place where I am staying. During the first lockdown, I tried my fortune by working as a mason. But it did not fetch money as I expected. When restrictions eased I resumed the laundry work,” said V Saraven, a washerman.
Similarly, many hotels and lodges are not giving clothes to washerfolk over rumours that they are washing the clothes of hospitals. However, washerfolk claim that no one who is washing in the Muthalakulam ground procuring clothes from hospitals.
Despite the miseries, the Muthalakulam washerfolk still navigate through 'the pond which has many crocodiles', trying their luck and fate.