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Conversation with Lata (22) and her mother Ranjana (45; working as a dhobi/presswali for 14 years). They belong to a dhobi caste and are originally from Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. “My parents bought this thikana (kiosk) from somebody else and started working in Khirkee gali. From that time this ironing thikana is our property,” Lata explains. She has been accompanying her mother to the thikana from the age of ten. They have many customers, especially from Khirkee village in Malviya Nagar, and are on good terms with all of them. “The person closest to us is Neeru Aunty who lives in the gali just opposite our thikana. Our relationship is of the sort that I can go to her at any time and talk about any problem,” says Lata.

She describes how some years ago they had to take a short-cut through the overgrown scrub “jungle” that surrounded Khirkee.

“We were afraid if we had to cross the main road for any reason, in case a stranger approached us in that wilderness. Now it is all developed – the mall, the district courts complex, the hospital, and this gives us a sense of security. Those huge buildings are busy late into the night and there are many people around all the time so we don’t fear walking along the road after work in the evening. These are good changes for us.”

Earlier Lata and Ranjana did face problems within the space of Khirkee as the lane they worked in was in a mess due to problems with sewerage, stagnant water, rubble and potholes. The gali always flooded in the monsoons and often they had to stand in knee-high filthy water to do their ironing. Sometimes they left the thikana for days as the water made it impossible to work. “Now the roads are built properly and the sewerage has improved, the gali rarely floods. Multi-storey buildings are coming up and landlords are renting to outsiders, new people, so many foreigners are coming here from other parts of Delhi. You can see a lot of Africans, mostly men, loitering in the lanes. But there are also Chinese-type [i.e., from the North-east], Afghans, migrant karhaiwalas (artisans from eastern India who work in the local embroidery workshops) and Biharis who work as construction labourers,” Lata says. “Sometimes the foreigners bring us their clothes for ironing but we hesitate to accept these people as customers – they are completely alien to us, and we think that their clothes might have a peculiar smell.”

According to Lata, the Biharis used to be in the lanes all the time, either hanging out, or standing in a group and watching the television fixed to the wall of barber shops or video shops. The constant stares of men in the gali used to irritate Lata and make her feel awkward when she passed them; this has not changed, especially as the men hanging around tend to block the gali and have to be asked to make room for her to pass. She also says that the significant numbers of foreigners in the galis of Khirkee makes her feel even more awkward. While the commercial establishments across the road provide employment to many people and those crowds do not bother her, she laments that there is no space in Khirkee itself for local girls to walk around in public with self-assurance and dignity.