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The Melody of Laundry

The first sound I hear after I wake up, besides the incessant trill of my 6:00 alarm, is the laundry man.

Sound is a constant in Varanasi: the honking of motorcycles and rickshaws; the mooing of the street cows; the denizens of this gloriously noisy city conversing in the early morning blends into cacophonous white noise. It’s a source of frustration for me, coming from the suburbs of Massachusetts. I find myself getting angry at the sheer volume of this city, which is high even early in the mornings. Yet I can hear the laundry man, whose work begins before my day even starts, smacking wet clothes against a large stone down the street, rising above the din.

I listen to his work for a while, convincing myself that getting up and going on an early-morning walk with Saurabh-ji is the mature, adult course of action. The sound brings to mind images of towels snapping on a pool deck. It is the laundry man and his pre-sunrise labor which inspires me to roll out of bed, spending more time than I’d like detangling myself from the mosquito net that I can’t get used to having around me while I sleep.

When I leave my house, bidding my host mother, Sunita-ji, and host father, Krishna-ji, a good day, the laundry man smiles at me around a mouthful of paan. He puts a hand to his heart, and calls me ‘Indian Child.’ This is inaccurate, but never fails to brighten my day.

Sunita-ji recommended the laundry man to me. Not only is his business a stone’s throw from my home, but he doesn’t wash clothes in the Ganga like some other laundry services. Given that I’ve already had a E. Coli infection once on this trip, I appreciate his use of not-Ganga water more than I can express.

From what I can tell, the laundry man lives a routine life. He and his wife live on the corner by our group’s favorite restaurant, Itihaas, where we spend a good deal of our free time. He always wears the same shirt, though I see his wife decked out in different colored saris often. He works seven days a week and, no matter what, has the laundry I bring him in the morning washed by the evening.

I’ve never caught his name, and he doesn’t know mine, but the laundry man has been, of all the Varanasians I’ve met thus far, one of my favorites. I wish that my Hindi was better than it is, and that he and I had more time to get to know one another. I’ve never met a harder worker or a kinder soul, and in the mornings when I struggle to get up, I think of him.

When I come home, I want to be like the laundry man. I want to work harder, and be kinder, and smile at strangers. By the end of next week, I’m going to figure out how to tell him how much of an impact he’s had on my Varanasi days in his language. And when I think back on my time in this boisterous city, I’ll remember the laundry man and the soothing melody of his work.