There was something I couldn’t put my finger on about the hotel we stayed at on Mandarmani beach. Something felt off. Initially, I had a few vague reasons that explained my discomfort.
- Immediately, upon opening the gates of the hotel, there is a row of enormous eight-foot statues of bronze horses. They do not resemble any type of animal I saw on the way. To get to the hotel, we drove by villages with chickens, cows and goats. As we got closer there were lobster ponds. But chariots of horses stampeding by the beach? Not a thing, as far as I observed.*
- In the center of the property, there was a broken mini children’s roller coaster. Next to it was a foggy glass box with a slightly terrifying life-size sculpture of a clown inside.
- One of the people on this trip, Sofia, put it well. “This was probably the hippest place to be in 1992, but nothing has been changed or maintained since then.”
On Saturday, between the insane “morning” hours of 4:30-6:30, I got my answers.
My roommate Lila and I, along with about a dozen others, resolved to catch the sunrise at 4:30 am. We climbed over a padlocked gate and sat on the beach, staring and waiting. For a while, it seemed as if we came during a bad day – the sky potentially too cloudy to catch a glimpse of the rising sun. When we nearly gave up, we stood in the sand and felt the clay beneath our feet. Then, we saw it: a space of emptiness between the clouds. Very briefly, we saw the sun rise until it left a pink after image.
By that time, Professor Ganguly and his friend Suman were also on the beach. They invited us to ride on these flatbed motorbike vehicles, which we used to travel a few kilometers down the coast to see the red crabs. At one point, as recently as 1990, the beach was completely red, covered with millions of crabs.
Since the development of hotel properties on this coast, the crab population has become endangered. It took about 10 minutes of riding own the coast to see what is left of the red crabs. Like magic, if a person steps onto the sand near the crabs, they disappear into their holes. Poof. They can sense the vibrations. The villagers have been eating these red crabs for years, but the development of hotels on the coastline has significantly affected both the people and crabs who call the Mandarmani area in West Bengal home.
Lucky for me, I sat next to Suman on the ride there and back and he offered some more substantial explanations for my uneasy feeling about the hotel.
First of all, the hotel owner is currently in jail for money laundering. Moreover, the Hindu temple sitting on the coastline is something the original owner invented for tourists. Here’s the biggest kicker: in a few years, all of the properties near the coastline will be demolished because their existence violates environmental regulations.
Suman and I chatted about how bringing hotels to this coast has fundamentally changed the villagers’ way of life. In the past, they used to use agriculture for subsistence, but now, they’re mostly employed as hotel labor, farming less and less.
Watching the 6 am beach, we passed by villagers and tourists alike. Some roamed the shorelines taking pictures while others cast out rope nets for fishing.
When we returned, we witnessed a pack of cows on the beach. It was like I was in a peaceful dream, one that didn’t involve any scary clowns or extremely large horses. I saw a calf drink its mother’s milk. A larger cow licked a cracker right off the palm of my hand.
It was a morning I cannot forget. When I thought about the red crabs disappearing, both into their holes in the moment and also forever, I felt an unprecedented urge to tear up. Normally, I don’t always feel emotional about climate change. But there I was, standing not inside of a dream but in the real world and the effects of the anthropogenic era were right in front of me.
*Note of accuracy here, upon further research I learned that horses actually have significant symbolism in Hindu mythology and the first horse is said to have ascended out of the ocean. So not totally out of place.