It was a beautiful time in December when I landed in the Andaman Islands. The view of the Bay of Bengal was enthralling; undulating mountains met the sea and merged infinitely into the sky.
But upon reaching our four-star hotel, apparently the highest category in Port Blair, disappointment kept getting heaped on, from the illogically high cost of rooms being over $300 per night —even more than five-star hotels in mainland India — to bad hotel upkeep due to a lack of hygiene and cleanliness. Even in this beautiful paradise, I could barely sleep the first night as I was plagued by an itch all over. It was better to go stand in front of the window and enjoy Nature’s beauty than experience the hotel’s facilities.
The next morning, we suddenly came upon an unusually beautiful scene. Swaying in the sea breeze were rows of huge white sheets hung on clotheslines stretching hundreds of metres. The sheets were neatly wedged into two intertwined tight ropes on two edges, while the other two edges were cleverly suspended in an amphitheatre of green grass that sloped down to a serene pond filled with lotus leaves. Around the pond were a few large trees that made the rays of the sun play hide-and-seek on the white drapery.
This vast mesmerising scene reminded me of famous environmental art I saw in New York in 2005. Created in Central Park by artists Christo and Jean Claude, their art had bright saffron coloured fabric covering 37 km of the park with 7,503 gates five metres high. The married couple specialises in constructing visually impressive artistic works using reams and reams of fabric. They had wrapped the whole Reichstag building in Berlin using 1,00,000 sq metres of fireproof polypropylene cloth and Miami’s Biscayne Bay with 6,03,850 sq metres with pink floating fabric. Theirs is a vanishing art. “It takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain,” says Christo.
The hanging white sheets we were crossing made for a truly stunning sight, but of course it was not an officially declared work of environmental art. It was Port Blair’s dhobi ghat. The large pond had flattened slabs of rock. Men stood in the water vigorously bashing huge white bedsheets on the stone slabs. They’d take the cloth from large bins that were caked with white chemicals from having been used over a long period for bleaching the cloth. Dipping these sheets into water, they’d fold each sheet, then, with biceps gleaming, thrash it forcefully. First on one side, turn it around, flog the other side, before washing off the chemicals and detergent in the pond behind them. Undoubtedly an inhuman, laborious continued…