Hello, my name is Shambabu Dhobi.
Ok. You got me. My name isn’t actually Shambabu Dhobi. My name is Eric Spector and I am the sixth generation Union College Minerva Fellow in Bagru, India.
Despite my inability to speak Hindi and generally fair skin, every morning I get to pretend to be Indian for about two hours.
This occurs in my time with the washermen of the block printing industry, or as they are called, the dhobis.
Allow me to explain.
At around eight o’clock I put on my high school soccer shorts, a torn plain white t-shirt (as part of my washing outfit the shirt is no longer white) and stroll over to my friend Depak’s factory for washing with Babulal Dhobi and his son Bhanwar.
I originally planned on working with all members of the printing community, which includes carvers, printers and washers, but after my first day with Babulal I fell in love. (No, not with him. With washing.)
Washing takes place in tubs that are a little larger than a hot tub. The three pools are filled with water, and meters upon meters of fabric pass through each for a prewash and post-wash before they are sold in the local market.
Washing here is done completely by hand. In order to prepare the fabric and remove excess color, each piece is wrapped tightly and beaten against a stone at the edge of the pool.
As a former athlete, I found something very therapeutic about taking a big piece of soaking wet fabric and beating it as hard as I could against a stone.
Bhanwar and I have become quite the team and every morning our efforts spent in the pool bring us closer and closer together.
The Indian name given to me upon my arrival in Bagru was Shambabu, but it was not until I took a liking to washing that I earned the name Dhobi.
Every two weeks or so I head over to Babulal’s house for dinner with his family.
As we pass through the market he introduces me to his friends as Shambabu Dhobi with one of the most incredible smiles in the world.
He smokes beadies (unfiltered cigarettes) constantly, but there is a certain inescapable honesty behind the smile that lets me know that he isn’t just introducing me as a friend. He is introducing me as one of his own.
These are my mornings in my home away from home, known as Bagru.