Archive for the 'The Dhobi Stories' Category

No Laughing Matter

No Laughing MatterDhobi’s wife collects cow dung in a large basket perched on her head.

At home she kneads the dung with straw and slaps it into patties against the wall of their hut to dry.  Dhobi pulls the dried chips off the wall as needed to light the morning fire.

One morning after a rain Dhobi tossed into the fire two dung patties that had a fresh crop of mushrooms sprouting on one side.

Oh well,” he reasoned.  “Wood is scarce.  Mushrooms will burn.”  He didn’t give the mushrooms another thought.

Shortly afterwards a cloud of smoke rose up and filled the room.  Dhobi gasped then coughed forcefully.  He started cackling then laughing like a mad man.  Suddenly tears filled his eyes.  He began to visualize Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe, dancing wildly in front of him.

When Dhobi joined in with a frenzy of movement and a babble of words, his wife, greatly upset, fled in search of the village exorcist.

When they returned Dhobi growled at them like a wild pariah dog.  Red betel juice dripped from his mouth like blood on the lips of the vengeful blood-drooling goddess Kali.  A hideous laugh rang out.

Without further delay, the priest began an exorcism.  Lighting incense, he recited prayers and dunked Dhobi’s head in a bucket of water three times while blowing on a conch shell.  The priest tossed red chilies on the fire.  Dhobi’s wife prayed fervently by his side.

When Dhobi came around after inhaling the fumes of boiled cow urine, his throat was raw and his vision blurred.

That scoundrel!” Dhobi lashed out.  “That new washerman on the next ghat?  He did this. He caused this witchery.”

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Ticketless Traveler

Dhobi - Ticketless TravelerThe Shivaratri Festival in Kathmandu is the destination of pilgrims throughout North India. What better way to spend “Lord Shiva’s Night” than by blasting chillum after chillum in honor of the blue-throated god of the high Himalayans. Bom Shankar! Dhobi spent two days camped on the railway station platform in preparation for the trip.  A sign in the depot warned “Ticketless Travel is a Social Evil.”  Dhobi purchased a ticket and watched the comings and goings of travelers at the station.  He wanted to be extra sure of the procedure before striking out on his own.  Third Class Unreserved was in theory “first come first served.”  In actual practice, however, those who pushed hardest managed to get inside the railway car.  All others had to hang onto the outside.

When the express train pulled in, Dhobi was prepared.  As planned he was among the first to crowd into the car — but at what expense!  No sooner had he sat down when he realized something was missing–his wallet.  A thief had picked his pocket in the stampede to climb aboard.

What a dilemma!  If he left to get a new ticket, he’d lose his seat on the train.  If he stayed without a ticket, he’d risk eviction from the car.  Then Dhobi remembered, his money too was stolen.  That settled matters; there was no way to procure a ticket before the conductor came through the car.  Dhobi sat still and rehearsed his appeal as the miles clacked by.

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Dhobi at the Laundromat

Dhobi at the LaundromatWhen a laundromat opened in a nearby village Dhobi was one of the first to experience this modern convention.  He selected a large batch of his best clothing for the occasion. The clothes weren’t even dirty.

“Take mine, too!” his wife panted, running after him with her wedding sari.
When Dhobi approached the building, a crowd of pilgrims blocked the door.  Mantras directed to Shiva rang out.  A line formed and Dhobi fell into place behind the thirty-ninth person each one toting a bundle of dirty laundry.  By late afternoon his turn finally came.

Dhobi asked a special favour. “Do you think I could have a small portion of the machine water as a keepsake?
The proprietors agreed, accepting the bottle Dhobi held in his outstretched hand.  The magic cycle began: Soak/ Wash/ Rinse/ Spin.  A man filled Dhobi’s bottle with water from the Rinse cycle.

Dhobi muttered his appreciation as though he were accepting prasad, communion, from the village priest.
He loaded the wet clothes onto the back of his compliant mule for the trip back to the ghat where Dhobi stretched each article over the banks to dry in the hot, dry Varanasi sun.

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A Sound and Light Show

A Sound and Light ShowOn the day a birth-control clinic opened in Dhobi’s village, men and women from all over the area traveled many miles to attend.  Everyone was amazed as they stepped on the automatic door mats to see the doors swing open. Inside a Sound and Light Show illuminated the various methods of contraception in six dialects using life-sized models of people.  A full selection of new products bearing the names of prominent movie stars was available: Agni Diaphrams, Prakash Condoms.  The best-seller was a Hanuman Prophylactic that came with a full-color portrait of the Monkey God in one of his heroic poses.

A display table illustrated the prizes and incentive awards that everyone was eligible for.
Dhobi asked himself over and over again the big question, “Is a vasectomy worth a transistor radio set?”

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Special Treatment

Special TreatmentDhobi tried every medication sold in the local dispensary to get rid of itchy scalp:  Ayurvedic preparations, homeopathic concoctions, castor oil, linseed oil, mustard powder.  He tried yogic exercises such as standing on his head for ten minutes three times a day.  When his hair started to fall out he had a good excuse to visit the local herb doctor.  But even the doctor couldn’t stop that exasperating itch.
“Dandruff! It must be dandruff,” the doctor concluded, handing Dhobi yet another gooey cream rinse.
Dhobi dutifully took the bottle down to the river and bathed in the usual way, following up with applying the rinse to his hair.  It was so slimy, however, he had trouble rinsing the lotion out of his hair.  River silt clung to the strands.  He had to buy a large-toothed comb to ply his way through the mess.
Then Dhobi made a startling discovery.  Ambling down between the teeth of the comb was a large chunk of dandruff.  Dhobi looked closer.
“Ah-ha!” he exclaimed.  “Head lice!  I should have known.”
A special lice treatment was available in the bazaar.  For twenty-five paisa Dhobi could rent a monkey on a leash. The monkey meticulously picked through Dhobi’s scalp singling out the vermin and expertly popped them into his mouth.  With smacking lips, the monkey scrunched the lice between his teeth like pomegranate seeds, juice squirting all over.

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What is Compassion to a Fish?

What is Compassion to a Fish?Every day Dhobi, a washerman in India, hand washes clothes at the sandy banks of the river Ganges.  Fish, Dhobi thought one day, are like cows.  In India both lead privileged lives.  It is even considered lucky to be reborn a fish in a sacred lake or pond where one is treated royally, fed with offerings for the gods, able to swim unmolested, to live to a ripe old age.
In Bodh Gaya, a dusty village in Bihar state, there are fishmongers who cater to the Buddhist pilgrim trade.  For a modest sum a fish can be purchased from the sellers and set free.  The merit of such a compassionate act increases the pilgrim’s chances for a better rebirth.
On a pilgrimage one summer, Dhobi watched Buddhist pilgrims from many regions converge upon the village in great numbers doling out compassion, as alms for the poor.  In the search for meritorious good deeds that bring good karma, or in shopping for merit, some unusual questions arise.  Do fish have souls?  Do larger fish have greater souls?  What is compassion to a fish?  Dhobi admired the good intentions of the pilgrims.
But what about the fish, he wondered?  Each two-rupee liberation found them cast loose in the same pond from which they were caught, as no rivers flowed out of the village of Bodh Gaya.  So the fish made the rounds from the pond to the buckets and back to the pond again.  There’s no telling just how many times a fish had been liberated.

TICKETLESS TRAVELER: The Dhobi Stories, is a collection of twenty pithy fables. “For that first edition in 1980 I did all the layout… cut & paste the old fashioned way… and typed on an IBM selectric with proportional type to look more like it was printed. before desktop publishing…”.

Marilyn StableinMarilyn Stablein is the award winning author of eleven books including the memoir Sleeping in Caves: A Sixties Himalayan Memoir and a collection of prose poems More Night Travels to Tibet.  Her book Splitting Hard Ground: Poems won the New Mexico Book Award and the National Federation of Press Women’s Book Award.  She is also a visual artist. Her collages, assemblages and photographs have appeared on the covers of Rattle Magazine, Malpais Review, Gargoyle Magazine and in numerous publications and exhibitions.  Her award-winning artist books have been widely exhibited and published in LARK’s 1,000 Artist Books, The Bone Folder and Bound and Lettered magazine.    For a schedule of workshops, readings, talks and art exhibitions visit her website marilynstablein.com. Her books can be ordered through the bookstore she and her husband own Acequia Booksellers, a used, rare and independent bookstore in New Mexico and online at acequiabooksellers.com.

© 2013 marilyn stablein

Now you’ve read this, enjoy having a Listen to Marilyn – interviewed by Doug Grunther on station WDST 100.1 fm – Woodstock NY 2003. This interview/reading publicized ‘High in the Himalayas’, a chapbook published by Peter Lamborn Wilson.

“In the heyday of the sixties, during a seven-year stay in the Himalayas, Marilyn Stablein teaches herself how to not only cook a curry on a cow dung patty fire, but to master sadhu rituals like preparing chillums. Whether describing Mishra’s bhang lassi shop, the government hash store, her meeting with cannabis guru Ganesh Baba, or a trek to a cave in Kashmir to view Lord Shiva’s miraculous ice lingham, Stablein is an intrepid adventurer and humorous chronicler.”

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