Four-star jugaad

Updated: Mar 9 2014, 10:00am hrs
It was a beautiful time in December when I first landed in the Andaman Islands. The Bay of Bengal view was enthralling: undulating mountains met the sea and merged infinitely into the sky.

But 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 to lack of hygiene and cleanliness. I could barely sleep the first night even in this beautiful paradise, my body was itching. It was just better to go in front of the window to enjoy natures beauty than experience the hotels facilities.

The next morning, we suddenly came upon an unusually beautiful scene. Swaying in the sea breeze were hundreds of 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 rain trees that made the sun rays play hide-and-seek on the stark white drapery.

This vast mesmerising scene on the roads bend reminded me of the 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 of five metres height. This married artist couple specialise in constructing visually impressive artistic works using reams and reams of fabric. They had wrapped the whole Parliament House in Berlin using 1,00,000 sq m of fireproof polypropylene cloth and Miamis Biscayne Bay with 6,03,850 sq m 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 clothes we were crossing comprised a truly stunning sight, but, of course, it was not an officially declared work of environmental art. It was Port Blairs dhobi ghat (washermans enclosure). The large pond had flattened slabs of rock. Men facing away from the water, but legs inside it, were vigorously bashing huge white double bedsheets on stone slabs. They would 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 would 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 todays modern technology world.

A wall being built had a notice that claimed it to be a welfare measure of the local government representative. The wall will certainly hide this spectacular view from tourists. Was concealing the washermens workplace from public gaze a reason to construct the wall These white sheets are bed linen that tourists sleep on, so would their cleaning method disturb the tourists After all, the water was stagnant, it looked white-ish next to the washermen, greenish near the lotus leaves. Directly from this water, the linen are hung up to dry and ironed in the evening before delivery within 24 hours back to the hotels.

I have been in this business for 30 years. We have to get labour from mainland India because Andamanese are not willing to do hard work, said Muthu, who originally hails from Tamil Nadu. Even his son going to college wants a government job rather than bash clothes. Muthu says all hotels, even the most expensive ones, use this laundry system. The dhobis charge R2-4 for small items like pillowcases and R7-10 for bed linen. Each hotel gives 200 to 400 sheets per day in winters, so the business is good. From the clothesline, I did notice the brand labels or etchings of several different Port Blair hotels in the sheets and towels. So this was the hotels sense of hygiene, 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, a caste based on their occupation, have traditionally provided this service that people need. They earn a living using the resources they can muster up, which are hard work, stamina and the skill of laundering. As per age-old custom, they collect clothes from different houses, mark each households 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 in the western system, our expectation is that mechanical methods be used for basic jobs like clothes washing. Thats because washing thousands of white bedsheets every day, and that too with chemicals in a stagnant pond, is unnatural in the traditional system and clearly overstretches the available traditional resources. If such hotels can pretend to provide western comforts, why dont they also buy a few washing machines for their laundry

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 bedsheet washed in that polluted water Perhaps my itching would stop too.

Beautiful Andamans can be a paradise holiday to the whole world. But this kind of jugaad spirit after charging international costs is really horrible. Such jugaad can destroy our tourism income instead of attracting global travellers.

Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top

management on differentiating business strategy with execution

excellence. Reach him at