100 Days in India Project

A line off pillowcases drying in the sunlight in Varanasi, India.

21/ 100 Hanging out the Washing

On our first trip to India, in 2018, we stayed at an apartment in the Rajasthan town of Pushkar for a few days. We booked it online because it looked quite pretty and was in the countryside, just outside the main town itself. What we couldn’t have known was that it was owned and run by the most pretentious Indian man we ever met on our travels. 

The relics of the caste system are still plainly obvious in India, despite people telling us it had long been abolished. The owner of this particular B&B wasted no time in introducing himself as a Rajput, a member of the warrior caste that sits right at the apex of the pyramid just beneath the Brahmin or priests. He then went on to tell us that, as foreign tourists and guests of his, we would be treated as his equal.

His status obsession was pretty much all he ever spoke about and he ran his little encampment like a dictator. For instance, over dinner one night he took great delight in explaining to us how he managed the workloads of his terrified household staff by weighing them every week. If they were putting on too much weight he would give them a more physical, and often unnecessary, task (moving a huge pile of horse manure from one place to another was a favourite of his apparently). If they got too thin he would feed them a little more. Unsurprisingly, it was plainly obvious that his staff hated him.

As with all of our trips across the world there are some things that are unavoidable, and one of those is doing the laundry. You can only wear clothes for so long before there comes a time when you can’t go out and play and you need to do some chores. Having run out of underwear (even though my favourite Smartwool socks do last a few days longer than normal socks) I decided to do some laundry in a bucket and asked where I could hang it to dry. Our host was genuinely horrified that I had done this since, as a western tourist, I must accept my higher status, a notch above his servants, and washing clothes was most definitely a job for them. It was too late though.

He shouted a member of his team who came scurrying out and was instructed to take my laundry up to the roof where it could be hung to dry. I refused and carried the bucket of wet clothes up myself but, oh he was so angry and more or less ordered me to use the staff for menial tasks. On the roof I gestured to the wonderful lady, who was told to be there to help, to have a seat and relax for ten minutes whilst I hung up our slightly cleaner shirts and trousers, well out of sight of the big man.

When we left Pushkar, to move on to Jaipur, we were touched that the servants had obviously noticed that we weren’t like their boss. One of the men slipped a bag of sandwiches into my hand as we left and the lady who did most of the cooking pulled a couple of bananas from her sari as we hugged her goodbye. A sneaky bottle of water was already waiting for us on the back seat of our taxi. I really just hope they didn’t get into trouble on our behalf.

The main photograph above was some different washing – I don’t carry that many pillowcases with me when I travel. This was a string of hotel laundry that had been washed in the river Ganges in Varanasi and was hanging over the stone steps to dry in the fog of smoke from the nearby cremation fires. The photograph below is the only one we took inside the grounds of our apartment in Pushkar and is a portrait of the lady that smuggled breakfast for us.