I see him as he puts coal to the dark underbelly of his earthen furnace every dawn when I go out for my morning constitutional. He then lights the furnace and rapidly stirs the surrounding air with a palm-leaf hand-fan. As the embers light up and smoke billows out, he gets engaged in arranging the pile of washed clothes collected from the houses in the neighbourhood the previous night.
In the next few hours, it would be his job to put his iron on the blazing furnace to warm it up and then, throwing a sprinkle of water on each garment, he would move his iron back and forth carefully pressing each garment, smoothing out every crease so each piece of clothing is nice and crisp again for putting them on the next day. That done, he would take each set of garments to his old rickety bicycle, attach them securely to its carrier and pedal away merrily to deliver the crisp shirts and trousers, saris and blouses and kurtas to the houses of his clients. For five rupees each, the neighbours are happy to get freshly pressed clothes.
After a few sojourns to the houses in the immediate locality and a little beyond, the morning’s pile of clothes is cleared away while the vault of his wooden counter gets filled again with a new pile of washed clothes. At the end of his first session of work in the morning, Sheet (meaning ‘winter), for that is his name, takes a moment’s breather and has a cup of tea in an earthen pot from a local vendor. Ah, a cup of hot tea with milk and sugar so richly deserved!
Ironing a sari takes longer than most other types of garments. Before ironing a sari, Sheet sprinkles a few drops of water on the long piece of starched cloth and then asks his father to help him in neatly folding the sari. Father and son hold two corners of each end of the cloth tightly and then give the square piece of cloth a good shake or two before folding the sari nicely into a manageable size so it is easy to iron it. They have to repeat this time-consuming ritual for each sari and that is why Sheet charges a little more for ironing a sari!
He thus works all day silently in his wooden cabin rarely looking up to see the passers-by or the occasional vehicle and fills a vacuum in the daily lives of the people in this hamlet — he delivers pressed and ironed clothes to the doorsteps every day for a small fee and keeps everyone happy. For Sheet, our ubiquitous istriwala, it is a family vocation for I have seen his father Ganga too doing the same hard work from the same small wooden cabin by the main road. They hail from the neighbouring state of Bihar and can visit their native village and their family only a couple of times a year. Theirs is a hard life but I am sure after each workday, Ganga and his son sleep well at night. For our local ‘iron-men’ have an honest vocation and have stuck to it for generations without being overly greedy. That’s why I respect them so much.
In a country of jobless growth that didn’t reap its demographic dividend, in a country that struggles to create new job opportunities for its unemployed youth, Sheet has refused to be another burden on the state and found his own way of earning an honest livelihood. According to Census 2011, the average growth rate of the Indian economy was 7.7 per cent per annum when it is only 1.8 per cent for employment. Ganga and Sheet’s migration from the farming to the unorganised service sector has somehow helped them to eke out a living, albeit hard. They are self-trained in their vocation and completely self-reliant. Their normal workday should be a matter of emulation and admiration for many of us.