Ian Watkinson: Above the din of modern machinery, I heard a very different India

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The Independent Online

India's traditional obsession with pure white dhotis, shirts, pyjamas and kurta seems a little way off the mark now.

No longer do you entrust your dirty washing to the dhobi wallah, or washerman, who would spirit away huge piles of laundry from households as if by magic to the local river, and thrash your best shirt and trousers to shreds on a suitable flat rock in the river to remove the ingrained grime.

The washed laundry would then be strewn over the thorny scrub and brittle, dry grasses to dry in the searing heat, or swinging, along with hundreds of sheets and towels, from long washing lines strewn along the river banks (of course, the the river water is often dangerously polluted with chemicals and sewage, running grey and black between the stones).

All this is changing fast. Now, before 6am and sunrise every morning, all of our neighbours are clattering about with their steel thali plates and food vessels on the marble floors in their kitchens, crashing and chattering in the dawn light, making absolutely certain that no one is left asleep within a 50 metre radius, almost in competition with each other.

All are accompanied by the gentle hum, swishing and whirring of modern washing machines and spin- dryers from all levels. Of course, the poorer people here (who still comprise the majority) still wash in the filthy, stagnant rivers and thrash their clothes threadbare on rough, wet rocks as they have done for millennia. But for the newly financially secure and 250 million or so powerful, middle-class Indians who have become so much more worldly wise, the modern machine has become an essential part of life.

The changes within the social fabric are more pronounced than I ever recall in my 30-odd years of travelling here, and the divide between the middle class and the poor in terms of material possessions and empowerment is now greater than it ever was prior to India's recent, exponential development on the world trade stage. The poor just get poorer and poorer and the divide, instead of narrowing, is getting wider and wider.

The author lives in Chennai. This is an extract from his blog, "Shadow of Shiva", which can be found at Independent Minds. You can start your own blog at independent.co.uk/independentminds

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