Miles to go before I sleep…

Parshu was the laundry-wallah of a small suburb in the sleepy town where I grew up. There had never been any pressing desire (pardon the unintended pun) for most families around to own an iron. When we needed clothes ironed, we walked or ran up the quiet street and turned left at the cross-roads that meandered on to the market square. Two more skips, a jump across a shallow ditch and you ended up face to face with Parshu in his makeshift laundry. The little tin roofed shop had a messy pile of clothes on the left and an old rusty cabinet with yellowed glass on the right – ironed clothes occupied the pride of place here. In the middle of the room was an old table covered with faded bedsheets and threadbare blankets. An old Murphys radio on the wall behind him played Hindi numbers in a never ending loop. Parshu was hard of hearing and his coal powered iron made a fine hiss whilst it tackled our creases and so the radio was always cranked up to a very high volume. On the days, you did not want to walk past the cross-roads or jump past the ditch to check if Parshu was around, all you needed to do was to listen very, very carefully when you got to the bend in the road. If the radio was in operation, so was Parshu.

Parshu could neither read nor write. This did not preclude him from carrying out sums in his head and coming up with random rates for our clothes based on his whim for the day. The families around the street followed the same logic when paying him. An old grievance or a story of how he once burnt old Aunt Shah’s shawl or misplaced Mrs Sathe’s silk blouse would be aired with much melodrama from the aggrieved party – Parshu followed this up with much denial and feigned sadness and indignance. A paltry sum would be dispensed either way and all was well till the next piece of clothing went missing. My mother insisted that as long as you held up your fingers and itemized the cloth count for him, the man never made a mistake. The logic failed at times and when it did, we all blamed it one of two things – Parshu’s lack of literacy skills and his undying love for a drink. On a bad day, both factors combined and became a force to be reckoned with. The more he drank, the more emphatic he became. “Your clothes will be ready in the next hour”, he would magnmously promise us kids. “I will bring them over”, he would add loftily. “I will iron them so well that your mother will think you got them dry-cleaned” would be the next generous declaration. This was usually a sure sign to go looking for the other laundry-wallah in the neighbouring street who didn’t take too kindly to being utilised as a back-up plan for the mad-as-a-hatter Parshu.

Shortly after these flamboyant offerings of spectacular service, the main door of the laundry would close and Parshu would fall into a heavy slumber, his snores mixing with the lilt of the Hindi songs in the background. An hour or two after the drink had worn away, Parshu would wake up and make his way around the suburb, sheepishly letting people know that the ironing would take longer than expected. No matter how drunk he was or how busy he was or how many clothes had gone missing, Parshu himself was always attired in crisp, well-ironed sparkling white clothes. For all the things he was not, you could always rely on him to look like he had been to the best laundromat in town! An open field has a fence too – it is just harder to spot.

“Drinking never did anyone any good Parshu”, old Baa Shah would tell him. “Your soul, you foolish man, will be possessed by the demons”. Old Baa Shah laid much in stock by the demons and this was her routine threat for everything from missed homework by the grandchildren to errant cricket balls in her garden to Parshu’s drinking.

“Chee, chee, Parshu”, the doctor’s wife would admonish him. “How long will you play this charade? You are a very bad example for the children. I have half a mind to take my business elsewhere. That should teach you! ”

Parshu was the very picture of remorse. He promised to give up drinking, he promised to never make such high claims again and he promised to never let us down again. When he found himself near the bottle, all returned to normal around the street.

It was a problem but it wasn’t a big enough problem for any of us to buy an iron, find another laundry or take our business elsewhere. We may not know this at the time but we carry the burdens of those around us more than we think.

Parshu ironed a generation of clothes for that suburb – bibs, school uniforms, clothes for visiting cousins and family, wedding sarees, last minute shirts that needed ironing – the man ironed them all.  Like a memory film unwinding in bright, garish colours, our lives and our milestones found a way into his  little shop aglow and warm with coal embers. There are people who are witnesses to your life even when you don’t know someone is watching.

You don’t miss a part of the landscape till you lose your way.  The clothes had piled up, the shop was locked and we wondered whether he had gone on a holiday without as much a word – something he had done several times before. When they did find Parshu, he had been dead for a couple of days. He had fallen asleep by the roadside after a drinking binge and somehow this time around, he didn’t get up from his slumber and  finish the part of the act where he went around retracting his promises. Miraculously, his clothes were still impeccably crisp. Those fences in the open fields are closer than we think.

For all the things we are not, there are always things that redeem us. None of us are a lost cause. We just don’t know this at the time.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rajavel
    Aug 06, 2010 @ 11:22:23

    That was such fun read before it suddenly became so sad. Soulful writing as usual.

    Brought back memories of others : the visiting barbers, the tailors …and so on.

    Loved it Scarry.

    Reply

  2. Ardra
    Aug 06, 2010 @ 13:40:08

    Like a memory film unwinding in bright, garish colours, our lives and our milestones found a way into his little shop aglow and warm with coal embers. There are people who are witnesses to your life even when you don’t know someone is watching…
    You don’t miss a part of the landscape till you lose your way.

    Words don’t come to my aid the way they dance to your whims Scarlett, so I’ll just leave them unsaid…

    Reply

  3. Captain Nemo
    Aug 06, 2010 @ 16:43:14

    Totally agree with “For all the things we are not, there are always things that redeem us. None of us are a lost cause. We just don’t know this at the time.”

    Heartbreaking, awesomely written… loved this.

    Reply

  4. asuph
    Aug 06, 2010 @ 17:56:29

    Scarlett,

    Coming back to the blog after a long time, and it’s like a homecoming. Nothing’s changed, is it? Especially the earthly wisdom tossed in casually, but something that makes one sit up and take notice.

    Lovely piece,
    asuph

    Reply

  5. scarlettletters
    Aug 07, 2010 @ 19:58:18

    Rajavel, Captain – thanks.

    Asuphhhh, I am very, very pleased at the word ‘homecoming’. Means a lot.

    Also guys, this is nice – all the DSS people resurging 🙂 Time for a homecoming for all of us perhaps? 🙂

    S

    Reply

  6. Aria
    Oct 03, 2010 @ 21:38:33

    scarlett, back for my daily dose, this was very much like a short story.. mesmerizing, as always..

    Reply

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