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 job in today’s modern world of technology.
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A wall being built had a notice that claimed that it was a welfare measure of the local government representative. The wall will certainly hide this spectacular view from tourists. Was concealing the dhobis from public gaze the reason behind constructing the wall? These white sheets are the linen that tourists sleep on, so would their method of cleaning disturb the tourists? After all, the water was stagnant, it looked whitish next to the washermen, and greenish near the lotus leaves.
The sheets are then hung up to dry after being directly taken out of this water and ironed in the evening before being delivered back to the hotels within 24 hours.
“I have been in this business for 30 years. We have to get labour from mainland India because the Andamanese are not willing to do hard work,” said Muthu, who is from Tamil Nadu. His son, who goes to college, wants a government job and does not want to spend his life beating clothes. Muthu says that all hotels, even the most expensive ones, use this laundry system. The dhobis charge Rs 2-4 for small items like pillow cases and Rs 7-10 for bed linen. Each hotel gives 200 to 400 sheets per day in winter, so the business is good. From the clothesline, I did notice the brand labels or etchings of several different Port Blair hotels on the sheets and towels. So this was the sense of hygiene of the hotels, a jugaad (just-fix-it) system for laundry. Jugaad, the patch-up solution I wrote about last week, is used by those who have meagre resources.
The dhobis in India have traditionally provided this service. They earn a living using the resources they can muster, which are hard work, stamina and the skill of laundering. As per the age-old custom, they collect clothes from different houses, mark each household’s clothes with a unique symbol in black indelible ink, and return the washed, starched, ironed linen within a few days. We knew the flowing water streams dhobis washed the clothes in, and trusted them as a recognised part of society. However, today, when we go to four- and five-star hotels, paying large sums of money to live as though we were in the West, our expectation is that mechanical methods be used for basic jobs like clothes cleaning. That’s because washing thousands of white bedsheets every day — that too with chemicals in a stagnant pond — is unnatural in the traditional system and clearly overstretches available traditional resources. If such hotels can pretend to provide Western comfort, why don’t they also buy a few washing machines?
I was doubly confirmed when we found the same dhobis collecting bed linen from the hotel. So I had no choice but to buy bed and bath linen to use in the hotel. How could I put my face in the towel or on the sheets washed in that polluted water? Perhaps my itching would stop too.
The beautiful Andamans is a lovely spot for a holiday. But this kind of jugaad spirit after charging so much money is really horrible. Instead of attracting global travellers, such jugaad could destroy our tourism income.