Iron Man: Conversation With a Press Wallah

By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
[This article first appeared in today’s Kathmandu Post. Here is PDF version. Shorter version in Nepali appeared in today’s Kantipur.]

This is about this guy whom I have been seeing busy at his work all day, almost every day, since I came here to Jangpura Extension, one of south Delhi’s many residential complexes. He is there, right at the front of the building, on the side of the road that is attached to number B-19 whose third floor I live on. It’s been six months, and we have never talked. When leaving my apartment and returning, I see him busy at his work. Freezing cold? He is working. Scorching heat? He is busy. Every time I see him I can’t but appreciate his dedication to work. I am inspired. Look at this guy who is working so hard, standing and in harsh weather. How can you complain or possibly find difficulties in the comfort of a chair and air conditioner? How can you not complete the work that has been pending for a week?

Three months ago, I bought a book called India Express: The Future of a New Superpower by celebrated journalist Daniel Lak. The book starts with a description of a guy in Chennai similar to this man I am talking about. I was stunned to find “my guy” in the book. Not an exaggeration, but it was a surreal experience. As I read the first few pages of the book, I felt as if I was reading about this very guy with whom I had talked with only my eyes so far. I silently used to take note of what he was doing and, I assumed, he did the same about my activities (of going in and out of the apartment). There was no reason for me to go to him as I never wear ironed clothes. But on Thursday, partly because of my own vested interest to “interview” him for this article, I finally went to the press wallah, the man who irons clothes of people in the neighbourhood. One press wallah finally talks to another.

Here is Lak’s press wallah: “By the side of a leafy suburban street, in the South Indian city of Chennai, an old man plies his trade. He bends over a wooden plank suspended between two piles of ragged bricks, wielding an old-fashioned iron. His name is Ram… Dark skinned, wizened and wearing a cotton loin cloth, Ram is what Indians call a press wallah: press, as in “iron”, wallah, an all-purpose Indian word that means someone who does something.

“As Ram works, a pot of charcoal smolders besides him, even in the steamy summer heat. The coals go into a compartment in his ancient iron. Ram provides the steam to smooth the wrinkles from the clothes. He fills his mouth with water and sprays the water between his pursed lips at the most stubborn creases and ornery fabrics. Then he whips the hot iron onto the wet cloth, producing billows of steam and the hissing of a hundred snakes. Beside him, a makeshift clothes rack displays his finished work: crisp cotton shirts that sparkle in the sunlight, trousers with creases like knives, dark skirts with not a pleat out of place, sari blouses so finely ironed and starched that they seem to stand up on their own.”

The press wallah at work is a common sight in India, Lak observes. Almost every residential block has one. All function in, more or less, the same way. They set up their “offices” on the roadside, attached to the wall or a tree. I haven’t seen Mitrapal Chauhan, 52, spraying water through his pursed lips like Ram (he does that with his hands), but I can imagine how that looks. In fact, in many villages in Nepal where electricity is only a dream, the same charcoal-powered irons are used to press clothes. We used to have one in our home in Ramechhap.

I had realized in the first few weeks that at one point in time I would have to talk to this man. After reading the Lak book, the urge to speak to Mitrapal increased. I wanted to find out if he was also the sole breadwinner of his family like Ram, if he also dreamed of seeing his kids work in the BPO sector or anything as fancy as that, and if he was also as honest as Ram who proudly pays back the loan he took from his customers for his children’s education. There were some basic differences as it happens with every person; but in more ways than one, I found Ram and Mitrapal the same. Mitrapal’s wife helps him with the collection and delivery of the clothes that he presses. Among their five daughters, three are married. One of the unmarried ones is studying in the 11th grade while the other left school after finishing 10th grade. The only son is in the fifth standard. “I want to make him an engineer,” said Mitrapal, stunning me partially. “That is what he told me he wants to be.”

Like Nepal, India is a society of contrasts. The only difference is that the contrast is much starker in Indian society. One can see some of the richest men in the region and the poorest in the world jostling for the same traffic space on many roads in Delhi. While the former are confined in sophisticated cars, the latter are knocking on the closed windows of those cars to beg or sell pirated versions of books and magazines. Signs of prosperity and richness can be seen in as many places in Delhi as those that are dominated by beggars and the homeless.

“Of course, I also dream of riding a car,” says Mitrapal. “But I wasn’t born for that.”

Mitrapal represents the India that has yet to see the shining days. His parents used to do the same job that he has been doing for the past 17 years at the same spot. Before putting his hands on the iron, he tried his luck as a porter/loader at an airport in Delhi. That didn’t last long. He was born for this. His parents were from a remote village in Uttar Pradesh; but Mitrapal was born and grew up in Delhi, in this neighbourhood. He didn’t study beyond third standard in a local primary school, but has learnt enough English words to communicate with any of his affluent customers. He lives with his family in Faridabad, a town in neighbouring Haryana state, from where he commutes to work by train.

Over the years, Mitrapal says, India has progressed. His basis for saying that is the quality of clothes his clients have started wearing in recent years. Previously, people used to wear cheap clothes, he says, now they wear expensive ones.

It was my first visit to his workplace, though I have parked my car near to him innumerable times before and communicated with him in unspoken words, perhaps responded to his facial expression by a smiley. But today, I was right there at his workplace interviewing him. “Your predecessors (Surendra Phuyal and Gopal Khanal) used to bring their clothes for pressing,” he said. “But they never interviewed me. And you have never brought your clothes.”

“I never wear pressed clothes,” I said. “How can you press T-shirts and jeans?”

“You should,” he said. “Clothes become shiny when they are pressed.”

Then, reminding me of Lak’s Ram who repaid his customers not only the loan but the interest too, Mitrapal offered me a bidi and a cup of chai. Just like Ram’s customers, I couldn’t refuse.


1. Unpressed Shirts And My Crusade Against Ironing