Hanging Out

Shristi Roy makes a beeline for the city’s clotheslines.

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

Roti, Kapda aur Makaan. Food, clothing and shelter. In that order, they are the essence of basic human needs. They’re the bare minimum requirements to survive. But not everyone uses the same flour for their rotis, nor do they buy the same fabric to wear and they certainly don’t have the same houses to live in.

Mumbai has an interesting blend of people living on either sides of a wall – on one side, you have those living in neatly packed high-rise boxes and on the other side are those who may or may not even have walls. Despite all being made of flesh, bones and beating hearts, we’ve all been placed into different social hierarchies. In fact, the social tags seem to seep beyond the human body and into the inanimate objects attached to them.

“Clothes can carry many significant signs according to their shape, colour, surface decoration, embroidery techniques etc. And each one can be the expression of identity over ethnicity, religious beliefs, age, education and social class. Through observation of clothing styles over these items, the assumptions could be made about a person’s identity”, states the research article Visible Expression of Social Identity: the Clothing and Fashion. We gauge a person’s identity when we see them wear the clothes they wear, yes, but what about when the wearer isn’t around? How do we judge who a person is then? For me, something as simple and universal as drying clothes speaks plenty about the holder even in the latter’s absence.

 

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What do we need to dry clothes -- something to unfold the clothing on, a little bit of heat and breeze? With hardly any space to claim for their bodies, people of Mumbai’s urban slums find or make their own spots to facilitate these conditions. Pants and shirts, even sarees on the road dividers and alongside footpaths are such common sights that they’re often overlooked and under-acknowledged. Forget clips to hold the clothes from being carried away and forget ropes, a somewhat wide surface under the open sky is enough.

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On the other hand, people living in the high rises are discouraged from hanging their clothes out on their windows or balconies facing the public eye as it’s an ‘eye sore’. So, they’re forced to spend on machine dryers and/or have little pockets of space on the insides of the infrastructure to hide their drying clothes. These pockets of space hardly have sunlight reaching there. The International Journal of Research released an article in 2020 about the benefits of sun drying your clothes in which they mention, “Sun drying is gentle on clothing: Tossing and tumbling in a dryer can cause wear and strain on clothing fabric due to stress on seams and snags from buttons and zippers. Excessively high heat in the dryer can ruin some fabrics and cause irreversible damage: Sun drying helps whiten and disinfect laundry: The ultra-violet rays of sunlight help to bleach and disinfect laundry.” Do these people then find unique ways to get enough sunlight for their clothes?

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I spent months looking out for how people in this city were drying their clothes and what itwould tell me about them. Somewhere along the line, I started documenting them. Coming from Ranchi, a rather small city, I was used to having more open spaces and sunlight on our rooftops for us to hang clothes. It was normal and everyone accepted the fact that a house where humans reside will have clothes hanging somewhere. These last few months in Mumbai have left me thinking about how something as basic as drying clothes can be so vividly telling of who owns them and how they live as if they imbibe the owner’s life within their threads. Now, I can’t unsee any little piece of clothing hanging out.

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Photos by Shristi Roy