Delhi Diary

As the act of washing dirty linen in public gets negated, the washing machine has instead been put to use to wash the person clean (of his/her dirty attire) for the ballot box

Illustration: Aditi Kar
Photo: Illustration: Aditi Kar

The Washing Machine

I still recall how excited my mother was when she loaded a washing machine for the very first time in her life. Unlike the unavoidable contraption it is now, back then, it was considered a luxury item. At a mini celebration with a handful of neighbours in attendance and lots of washable clothes scattered around, the machine was switched on, accompanied by its gurgling sound. Her life was transformed thereafter; she did not have to hand-wash laundry anymore for the five of us. She could hardly believe it!

Loading the machine and watching it swirl dirty clothes around remained a spectacle for quite a while before it became a familiar domestic ritual. Although the electric washing machine came into existence in the early 1900s, my mother got to use it almost a century later. There are billions still standing in queue to get hold of a washing machine. For those who survive on less than two dollars a day, hand-washing the laundry continues to be a drudgery.

An Interesting Evolution

Laundry technology has continued to evolve with new machines and many products offering improved efficiency, convenience, and sustainability are available. High-efficiency washing machines claim to use less water and energy, reducing the environmental impact of washing clothes while lowering utility costs. Yet, not more than three billion people can afford to wash their clothes in electric washing machines. A washing machine is every woman’s demand, but gendered inequity still persists in our time.

Not sure why laundry as a task was assigned to women, many of whom used to wash clothes by pounding them on rocks after rubbing some cleansing stuff on them and drain the dirt away in streams or rivers. In colonial times, the most common way of washing clothes was to boil them in a large pot, then lay them on a flat board, and beat them with a paddle. Laundry was often a communal ritual along the banks of rivers and ponds where women did the washing.

Ever since the first patent was awarded for a washing invention in 1797, the history of laundry has gone through a fascinating transformation. From the ancient practises of washing with one’s hands to the present-day use of innovative technologies, the focus has remained on methods for keeping clothes clean and fresh. New technologies promise to keep laundry a more efficient, convenient, and environmentally friendly process.

The Political Dimension

If the virtues of a washing machine are too many to list, why has it yet to become an electoral issue? Every woman may vote for a washing machine, but none would dare to ‘‘wash dirty linen in public’’. Keeping one’s dirty linen away from prying eyes has been the preserve of the more affluent and genteel sections of society. It’s a reminder to maintain discretion. Best to handle issues privately rather than airing them publicly.

Of late, washing machines have acquired a political dimension though. As the act of washing dirty linen in public gets negated, the washing machine has instead been put to use to wash the person clean (of his/her dirty attire) for the ballot box. The electoral value of a laundered candidate is worth an important place in legislative governance. One just has to pass through the right washing machine to be seen as neat and clean in the eyes of the public.

Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer and book reviewer

(This appeared in the print as 'Delhi Diary')