Saturday, 19 January 2013

Laundry, dhobis and chilblains

Emmanuel College

a chilly pre-dawn saddle awaits

We’re in the grip of a cold snap and the city of Cambridge and the surrounding flatlands of East Anglia are frosted, white. Trees are covered with hoarfrost that tinkles in any slight breeze. I love it. Bundled up, booted and gloved to cycle to the station on Thursday I wondered at the beauty. Then speeding south towards London, snow highlighted skeletal trees and rusty train tracks. The subtle colours of green and yellow lichens looked rich against all the white.

I found myself thinking of Bryony, the laundress heroine of Tainted Innocence, the book I’m reading just now. Life really was tough in Tudor times for the poor, not unlike life for the poor in Nepal and other emerging nations. I enjoy letting my mind wander on train journeys and recalled another evocative book. I read it when I first came back home to live in East Anglia again after six years in Nepal: it was Fen Women an account of the oral history of Fenlanders whose memories went back to the time between the wars when women had few choices and little control of their lives. Their problems and complaints echoed those of Nepali women I knew and they also parallelled Bryony’s experiences.

How cushy (also the Nepali word for happy) we have it in modern Britain. Not so for poor Bryony, nor for the dhobis of the subcontinent. Imagine having to take bedsheets down to the river to wash them, and how cold would you be squatting by the icy river pounding sheets clean. And the chilblains.

But there’s no choice. They must put up with such work or starve. Who amongst us these days can imagine worrying about not being able to fill their belly? Certainly not me. Not even if I lose my day-job. I was warm, well fed and my biggest concern that day was whether my bike lock would be frozen and unopenable when I returned to Cambridge after dark.


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