“Nobody drinks alone”

In a locality where washing lines heavy with colour light up even the most mundane landscape, Navam Mawatha’s laundry seems a nucleus of sorts. Surrounded by banks and plush office spaces, the old laundry, sitting on prime real estate, remains virtually unchanged since its creation in the 1920s. It consists of two sturdy rows of stone basins for washing and a field strapped with washing lines, all surrounded by a boundary of small numbered rooms which, at that time, used to be occupied by close to 200 dobis, Sri Lanka’s own caste of washer-men. But as little as the laundry itself has changed, the environment around it and within it, has.

We encountered W. Siripala – or Dharmadasa, as he preferred to be called – in one of the small rooms, as he was ironing a batch of clothes one afternoon. The apparatus he used – although shaped like the modern iron – held within it burning shells of coconut instead of electrical wiring. As we asked him our questions, he rested the iron on a cracked, upturned plate and in his concise, unaffected manner, spoke of a time and a profession that was fast disappearing.

This laundry is where Dharmadasa has spent is whole working and adult life – 52 years knee-deep in soap and bleach, wringing the impurities out of every imaginable pattern and shade of cloth. By day he tends to the clothes and by night, he retires to his ironing room. And there, next to shelves piled with neatly ironed shirts, baniyans, sarongs and sheets, he sleeps on a small wooden bed that just about fits into the remaining space in the room.

As the laundry hangs, catching the afternoon heat, the whole place, strung with burning colour, looks strangely beautiful. But Dharmadasa tells us that his has been a hard life. Despite his hometown being in Matara, he has lived the majority of the past 5 decades at this laundry, providing for a family he only sees every other weekend. His salary may have increased over the years, but he tells us ruefully that cost of living today is such that he was able to save more when he was earning just Rs. 5 a day as opposed to Rs. 1000.

And now, with looming plans of development in the area threatening his job and the existence of the laundry itself, Dharmadasa may have more trouble to face in the future. Still, shrugging strong, wiry shoulders well used to bearing crippling loads of washing endlessly from wash basin to washing line, he remains stoically accepting of his hardship.

Produced by Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne, as part of Walkabout: Slave Island. Watch the trailer to this series below, and visit the Moving Images website for more stunning content on Sri Lanka.