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Backstory: In India, removing the ring around the collar

New Delhi's noted outdoor laundries keep the city's linens clean – with manual labor and miles of clothesline.

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Hundreds of sheets hang from lines stretched tightly between poles, the fabric rustling softly in the wind as pedestrians wander by.

"The Gates" project in Central Park?

No. It is just another day at the dhobi ghat, a bustling and billowing part of Indian culture – the outdoor laundry. Here, near the Civil Lines, a historic neighborhood in New Delhi, launderers called dhobi wallahs clean hundreds of shirts, sheets, and jeans each day in their quest to make a modest living in the booming Indian economy.

The Kanojiya family has been draping linens over lines for decades. Harichand Kanojiya, the patriarch of the clan, started washing clothes in 1947. An affable man with a toothless smile and a whisk-broom mustache, Mr. Kanojiya, despite his 82 years, still works from before dawn through the hot afternoon. His muscles and viselike handshake reflect years of wringing water out of cotton.

The dhobi ghats are as central to New Delhi as cabbies are to New York. Each day, bed linens, pants, and towels are collected from hotels, hospitals, and other places. Using rows of cement tubs, the dhobi wallahs separate the goods into colors and whites. The linens are then doused in boiling water, rinsed, cleaned in water with bleach, rinsed again, hand wrung, and finally hung out to dry. Pants and shirts are sent to an ironing shed for creases as sharp as an elephant tusk.

Men like Rakesh Kanojiya return the laundry in the afternoon by bicycle – never, it seems, making a wrong delivery. For their efforts, the workers make about 10 cents a sheet – enough to support a family. "If I'm not working, then that is not a satisfying life," says Rakesh.


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