I love clotheslines. They take me back to my Grammy’s backyard, where multiple cords were strung through the breezeway, and cotton nighties and kitchen towels caught the wind’s current beside the pink and purple fuchsia which Gram always hung in the shade over her two lounge chairs. Sheets would dry in an hour, and everything smelled like fresh-cut grass and sunshine.
Here in Bharatnagar and the other little villages outside the retreat, laundry is a snapshot of the daily life: pillow cases and the sleeves of a sweatshirt dance next to a purple sari; towels and t-shirts play peekaboo with the rising sun. I pass by as one lady is scrubbing fabric on top of a huge granite slab. She puts her whole body into it, and a froth of soap turns her chocolate-colored hands white before she rinses with water from a metal bucket.
There is a house in the village I pass each morning, and I document the daily strand of articles on the line. A rainbow of fabric hangs against the stone sidewall, and in the first two weeks I see neither the washer nor her efforts:
Until one day she is suddenly just there, stepping into the sunlight and dressed in a saffron sari and raspberry pink sweater.
Her face is worn and wrinkled ahead of her age from a lifetime carved out of this iron-rich hillside where every-day garments garner a film of rusty dust. She has washed a lifetime of petticoats and shawls, her husband’s socks and pants, tin dishes and tiffin bowls. Her wedding band glimmers on her hand, and she wears a single gold bangle. The wind brushes silver strands of hair over her frown and fill her skirt with light.
The next day there is no laundry strung on the cord, and the white-washed stone wall is empty compared to the daily tale of life which usually hangs in the sunshade of my favorite house to photograph. The woman is nowhere to be seen, a ghost, her sidewall barren and silent of color, but its pockmarks are full of ants, and the sparrows feed happily on this day of rest.
One day as I am out visiting the neighborhood felines (about whom I will write in my final post from this trip), a sweet male tiger rests in the late afternoon sun. His tail drips down the wall like the clothes above his long body. It is a peaceful scene. He calls to me as I walk by, and I lean in to scratch his orange head; his little chin tilts to meet my fingertips, and I am instantly overwhelmed in sweet sorrow for my Pawsie.
Sometimes it is the paint behind the laundry that catches my eye; other times it is the sun streaming through brilliant jewel-toned fabrics. Now my eyes are drawn to plastic buckets lined up beside a communal spout waiting for each woman to collect her daily family quota of four containers which will be rationed between drinking, bathing, and washing.
On early mornings, the laundry is a black silhouette, a shadow on the ground, shades of grey stolen by the morning light. Each time, though, it is the story of a family: school clothes show me how many children live here; if I see the same dress hanging twice in one week, I know the lady of the house probably has four dresses to pick from.
A bit farther along the way, just before heading out of the village and into the tea path, there are small blankets and a pair of sweaters on the line, revealing the recent chilly nights way up here in the mountains. A man’s shirt hangs draped and dripping. It will be dry by noon.