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Vivek Borkar and his Chinese Dhobi

by Gautam Saha
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Vivek Borkar is well known in certain circles, one of which is the group of hostelites and colleagues from Hostel 3. Over the years, his scholarship and erudition have grown exponentially. His research has moved into more and more esoteric areas. But his politeness and decency have remained, unlike many of his tribe who accompany their professorship with tantrums and idiosyncrasies. His relationships with others are based more on “correctness” rather than on practical expediencies. A case in point is his relationship with his Chinese dhobi.

Vivek Borkar first met his Chinese dhobi one Chinese New Year’s Day, when the latter had made special “chow mein” and had carried round bowlfuls of the same to his potential customers in the plush housing colony that Vivek resides in. On being asked what his name was, the Chinaman replied “chow mein”. Since Vivek’s mind was simultaneously engrossed in some complex algorithm, he did not pay particular attention to the man’s reply.

But later reflections making him ponder on the improbability of there being such a name, he asked the man again a few days later. This time the man did not exactly reply “chow mein”, but said something which sounded similar to “chow mein”. After a few more attempts to question the man, Vivek simply gave up, assuming that his knowledge ( or ignorance ) of the man’s name did not matter at all. In the meantime, Mrs Borkar had installed this Chinaman as the family’s daily dhobi and istriwallah.

The Chinaman washed Vivek’s clothes well. But being an ethnic Chinaman, he was used to Chinese collars more than the conventional collars we are all used to. A lifetime of ironing Chinese collars had induced and habituated the Chinaman to treat all collars the same way. Hence the unintended victim was Vivek’s shirt collars. What with having to contend with crushed and disfigured collars everyday, Vivek’s morale was being hammered with regularity, till he was reduced to a state of despondency. Several attempts to redress the situation fell on deaf ears since the Chinaman did not change his ways.

One day, mutual friend Satish Kini decided to call upon Vivek, to discuss a highly technical point, with momentous and far reaching consequences for communications technology. Satish met Vivek at just such a moment of the latter’s despondency. He was immediately solicitious, and initiated the following conversation:

SATISH: What’s up Vivek? Why the crushed look? Had an accident?

VIVEK:  (in deep despondency) No yaar. It’s my collars that are getting crushed day after day.

SATISH: What? Still having violent disagreements with the missus after so many years of marriage?

VIVEK:  It’s not that, yaar. It’s the Chinese dhobi who is ruining my collars.

SATISH: What are you doing about it? Why don’t you tell him?

VIVEK: I have already written three letters to him. There does not seem to be any response.

SATISH: (mouth agape) What do you mean, written? Did you write in Marathi or in English?

VIVEK: In English. I did not think that he would read Marathi, even though he is presently residing in Mumbai.

SATISH: Why don’t you just shout at him?

VIVEK:  That’s just not done. The man may be offended. I thought writing a letter might be more polite and the correct thing to do.

SATISH: (very curious now) Do you have a copy of at least one of those letters?

VIVEK:  Yes, I have the copies here, meticulously filed in my filing cabinet.

(One of the letters is reproduced below)






( Chinese dhobi )

Dhobi’s Chawl

Behind Navy Nagar

Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

Dear Mr Chow Mein,

It is with great regret that I have to draw your attention to the state of my collars of late.

My collars are just not done right. They are folded at the wrong place, crushed, and in many ways, mutilated out of recognition. I would remind you to see the way other dhobis and istriwallahs iron collars, so that you are fully apprised about the proper operating procedure required for attending to collars.

I am deeply grieved that in spite of several written reminders, there does not appear to be any positive response from your end. Meanwhile all my collars have been crushed out of recognition, and in consequence, almost all my shirts have been ruined due to your negligence and inattention.

I strongly urge you correct the way you are ironing my collars, so that I do not have to suffer the indignity of going out with well washed shirts but with crushed collars. Many persons have already started giving me odd looks.

It appears that my previous letters to you have not received the seriousness and attention that they deserve.


If there is no improvement in the quality of your work, I might have to deduct from your monthly bill. And if the situation still does not improve, I might be constrained to have to discontinue your services permanently, with the mandatory legally applicable notice period, which please note.

Your’s sincerely,

( signed )

( Dr ) Vivek Borkar

TIFR, Mumbai



SATISH: Are you telling me that you actually sent the Chinaman this letter?

VIVEK:  Yes. Shouldn’t I have?

SATISH:  Man, you’re crazy. Would he understand this letter ? Does he read English?

VIVEK:  Then what should I have done?

SATISH: You should have just yelled at him.

VIVEK:  But what do I yell?


VIVEK:  What are you saying? Would he understand?

SATISH:  He will jolly well understand.

VIVEK:  I really do not think so.

SATISH:  Let’s ask Mrs Borkar (who has just entered the room). Madam, how should you complain to the Chinese dhobi?

MRS BORKAR: Complain? You just yell at him.

VIVEK:  Okay, but what does one yell?


VIVEK: Satish, do you think that you can do this for me.

SATISH: Certainly, if you say so.

It is on record that after Satish Kini’s forceful intervention, the Chinese dhobi cum istriwallah soon mended his ways, and Vivek Borkar goes about with his collars in place and his head held high. If only Vivek Borkar had listened to the wise counsel of his wife earlier, instead of dictating officious letters to his secretary, he might have been saved a lot of chagrin and despondency, not to mention a large number of crushed collars.

Not only did he buy them over the strong objections of Mrs Borkar, but he also insisted on wearing them to bed every evening, as they matched well with his pyjamas


The Borkars are an ideal couple. Mr and Mrs Borkar are pointed out at public functions as “that ideal couple”. Outwardly they seem very much like one soul in two bodies. But underneath the surface, there are strong undercurrents. Underneath his simplicity and undemanding demeanour, Vivek possesses a streak of adamancy which sometimes drives Mrs Borkar, underneath her calm exterior, to frustration and desperation.

The other day, Vivek spotted a pair of purple socks at the supermarket. He immediately took a fancy to them. Not only did he buy them over the strong objections of Mrs Borkar, but he also insisted on wearing them to bed every evening, as they matched well with his pyjamas, he said. This did not go down well with the missus. It was like adding insult to injury. Vivek was impervious to her pleadings, her objections, her vociferous threats. He said nothing would induce him to part with his precious purple socks.

There was a noticeable impasse for a few days. Vivek tried his level best to persuade his madam that a small pair of purple socks should not come between them. That he would make amends in other ways, provided that she gave up her objections to his purple socks. But, as she remarked, if he can be adamant, so can she also. Two can play at the game. For a few days, the matter lingered at the uncomfortable “status quo” zone, with none of the partners recapitulating. While Vivek insisted on wearing his purple socks to bed, there was a frigid indifference from madam. She ignored whatever he told her as if she had not heard anything at all.

But as events unfolded, even the best of brains is no match for feminine wile. One fine day, Vivek observed that Mrs Borkar was much more cheerful than ever and had a song on her lips. Hoping that she had now forgotten and forgiven the matter of the purple socks, Vivek’s heart was considerably lightened now that madam had forsaken her coolness towards him.

He therefore proceeded to go to bed with a light heart and a song on his lips. But as he prepared for bed, he was anguished to find that the purple socks were missing. Repeated enquiries made to madam fell on deaf ears. Vivek was forced to spend the night without his beloved purple socks. Vivek was greatly grieved. The fact that all these days he had missed out on his madam’s affections due to the presence of the purple socks had not yet occurred to him.

After having spent a partly sleepless night on account of the missing purple socks, Vivek left for work next morning, and met his Chinese dhobi on the landing, who smiled broadly at him, flashing all his teeth.

CHINESE DHOBI: Good morning, sah. Thank you very much, sah.

VIVEK: Good morning, my man.

CHINESE DHOBI: You are very kind, sah, for giving me your purple socks.

VIVEK:  What? I gave you my purple socks?

CHINESE DHOBI: Madam gave dem to me yesterday. Thank you sah. Very kind sah.

VIVEK:  (with clenched teeth) : you are welcome, my good man.

Vivek, with all his genius and skill to solve complex mathematical algorithms, is no match for the wile and craft of the opposite sex. He is today a sadder but wiser man.

Author’s Note* Vivek Borkar was the all India topper at JEE 1971



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