Gopi Chand emerged from the pitch dark bowels of one of the four compartments of the world’s largest elevated steel drinking water tank, at a height of 110 feet from the ground level. His livelihood could be easily featured in the ‘World’s scariest jobs’ list, however, hardly any of the 10.5 million people whose lives were directly affected by his profession knew about his existence in the hustling-bustling metropolis of Kolkata in the West Bengal state of the Indian subcontinent.
Gopi was proud of his livelihood, a job that he had inherited from his father four decades ago in 1980 when he was twenty years of age. Now in the year 2020, he was just a few months shy of retirement.
His employers the ‘Kolkata Municipal Corporation’ or the KMC priorly known as the ‘Calcutta Municipal Corporation’ or the CMC, had not been able to find a replacement for him till date. This gave him a bit of hope that perhaps his commission would be extended.
There was a dedicated team of twenty men, who along with Gopi took care of the tank’s day to day maintenance, however, none of them was as skilled in doing a particular job in the tank’s upkeep process that the oldtimer had mastered over the last forty years of his existence.
In the year 1901, the idea of constructing the world’s largest elevated steel drinking water tank was conceived by Mr Arthur Peirce, Associate Member Institute of Civil Engineers (AMICE), Assistant Engineer of the Calcutta Corporation then. Peirce wanted to ensure round the clock water supply to the city that was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the mighty British Empire’s colonial presence.
The brilliant idea involved erecting an elevated balancing reservoir with a single supply 1.50 metre or 60-inch diameter mild steel main pipe to receive water during off-peak hours and store it to be supplied to the thirsty city, for times of the day when it was most needed.
The concept now a common way of urban water supply all over the world, at that time was a pretty out-of-the-box and highly innovative system. It thus met the approval of Chief Engineer, Mr W B MacCabe, MICE, under whose enthusiasm eight years later in 1909 the construction work finally started.
Babu Khelat Ghosh, in whose memory an adjoining path in the neighbourhood was named Khelat Babu lane, donated 482 acres of land, on which the tank was made at a total cost of eleven lakh or 1.1 million rupees in those days.
During those times, it was pretty challenging to execute such a mightly project, which had to support the colossal weight of 41,000 metric ton of water and 8,500 ton of steel components. M/s T K Mukherjee and Co. took up the challenge and prepared the grounds for the gargantuan tank, along with Sir R N Mukherjee’s firm M/s Martin and Co. who laid the concrete foundation, on which the tank sits till date.
M/s Clayton, Son and Co. was responsible for providing, fabricating, and erecting the steel components and the tank that were brought from Middlesbrough, Great Britan. Babu Kali Shankar Mitter and Arracon Co. provided the cover for the receptacle. Then after two years of starting construction, the ‘Tala Tank’ was finally commissioned in the summer months of May in the year 1911.
More than a century has passed since then. Supported by its 295 steel columns this marvel of Indo-British engineering had just developed four leaks over the decades. The bottom steel of the tank sits on wooden planks supported by steel beams without any anchorage, which perhaps is the key to both its strength and flexibility, holding together the structure till date.
Made with the same kind of iron used to construct the Titanic, unlike the unfortunate ship this tank was a testament of the durability of British steel of the early 1900s. Withstanding many calamities, bombings by the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force (IJAAF) during World War II, and the great earthquakes of 1934 in Bengal and Bihar, the Tala Tank still stands tall on the face of the vibrant cityscape.
History of the Tala region dates back to the early 1700s when in the year 1717 the East India Company obtained the right to rent thirty-eight villages from the Moghul Emperor Farrukhsiyar. Five of these hamlets lay across the Hooghly river in the Howrah district, and the remaining thirty-three would go on to form the majority of what is known as the city of Calcutta today.
Forty-one years after this in the year 1758, after the fall of Mirza Muhammad Siraj-ud-Daulah, the 5th Nawab Nazim of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, the last independent Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company purchased these villages from Syed Mir Jafar Ali Khan Bahadur, the first British dependant Nawab of Bengal region. These villages en block were known as Dihi Panchannagram, and beyond the limits of the Maratha Ditch, Tala was one of them.
Measuring 321 feet on each side, with a water depth of 18 feet, divided into 4 square compartments, and holding 9 million gallons of water enough to fill 16 standard size Olympic swimming pools, maintaining the behemoth was not an easy job on any given day. Gopi and the twenty dedicated maintenance men silently worked behind the curtains to keep the Tala Tank up to shape.
Gopi Chand’s expertise was unique. The greybeard knew every inch of the pitch dark four compartments of the tank like a bottom-dwelling creature in the unfathomable depths of an abysmal seabed. He was the only one who could dive into the tank to do some extremely difficult maintenance work such as execute weldings and remove blockages.
Though other team members got down into the water occasionally, none of them had the nerves to stay and work in the dark waters as long as Gopi could do on any given day. Officially it was claimed that there was no need for anyone to enter any compartment of the tank when there was water in it, however, in all practicality, such a requirement existed, and Gopi Chand considered it as a divine responsibility to do this job for the wellbeing of the city’s residents.
The old man followed a very sacred ritual to enter the tank whenever there was the requirement. He knew people would drink this water that he immersed into, so he took meticulous care to wash and bathe in the best possible way before entering the dark and scary aquatic domain.
Though elevated at a height of thirty-three meters and situated within the confines of a walled premises, things and beings somehow found their way into the tank. Over the years Gopi Chand had to remove many unmentionables from the waters of the tank, which the officials would boldly deny on any given day.
It was 2020, in the summer month of May. The Regional Meteorological Centre Kolkata or the weather department had issued a warning of a massive tropical cyclone building up in the North Indian Ocean. They predicted that the storm would be nothing like anyone had ever seen or witnessed in the region. Following the warning, the whole city went into a lockdown mode, with people securing and shuttering themselves as fast as they could in the best possible way.
The Tala Tank compound was timely vacated. Few staffs staying on campus had safely locked and bolted themselves. Gopi Chand, who also lived there, somehow had become very restless. The old man worried about his dear tank and was deeply concerned, whether or not it would be damaged.
Late in the evening when the cyclone reached the Tala region, the old man could no longer sit still and pushed his window slightly open with much strength against the force of the raging typhoon to have a look at his precious tank and confirm whether it would hold on and be safe.
At that moment as he looked out through the crack of his wooden window panel towards the top of his beloved aquatic container, a terrible scare gripped his being as he saw an unbelievable thing happening at the edge of the tank hundred-and-ten feet above the ground level in the face of the violent tempest.
Without giving a second thought, picking up and slinging on a roll of sturdy and lengthy rope, Gopi Chand dashed out of his room running towards his sacred water vessel. With great difficulty, he pushed his way through the opposing windage to reach the steel ladder to access the tank at a mere distance of one-hundred feet from his quarter’s entrance.
Braving the powerful winds the old man continued climbing on the violently rattling metal ladder to reach the roof of the tank. Finally, on reaching the top, he somehow managed to tie one end of his rope to a rung of the ladder and crawled inching towards the edge of the tank where he had seen something terrible happening, forcing him to come out of safety amidst such a violent tempest.
After several minutes of struggle, which seemed like hours, Gopi Chand finally made it to a spot from where he extended his hand and grabbed the shoulder of one of the two teenagers hanging for their lives on the edge of the tank, shivering and freezing to near death.
One of the youngsters slowly opened his eyes, as he felt the old man’s hand on his shoulders. Realising that the greybeard had come to help, a glimmer of hope shone in his oculi as he made an effort to get a better grip on Gopi Chand as well. His friend too now seeing hope endeavoured with the last of his strength to save himself.
Gopi ultimately managed to get both the teenagers back on the roof of the tank. The storm grew in violence and with a loud crack, a hinge of the steel ladder split open, shaking it violently making it too unstable to climb down at the moment.
With no way to come down from the tank, remaining there meant certain death for the three as the raging winds kept on pushing them. Soon it would all be over and at any moment a violent gust could rip the ladder and the rope, which were the only things that had kept them anchored on the metal terrace.
At that very instance when all hope seemed lost, in a stroke of a bright idea of survival brilliance Gopi Chand took the teenagers and jumped into one of the four compartments of the tanks through a lid of the receptacle a few feet away from them.
Jumping into the tank had saved their lives that day. The water inside was warm and provided much comfort from the raging tempest blowing overhead. Though the iron behemoth swayed with the cyclone Amphan’s windage, the typhoon failed to break the hundred-year-old tank, and it survived along with the three souls safely floating in its aquatic bowels.
Later it was found out that the two teenagers, driven by their silly craze of ‘Facebook Likes’ wanted to take a video of themselves facing the storm on top of the tank, which they thought would get them great social media fame. For this, they had managed to sneak, climb and stay hidden on top of the tank much before the storm hit the Tala region.
Then finally when Amphan broke, it was too late for the youngsters to realise their mistake. Had it not been for Gopi Chand’s intervention, their names would surely make headlines in the next morning’s dailies, two more added to the official list of the eighty-four people who lost their lives to the cyclone that summer month of May in the year 2020 in the countries of India and Bangladesh.
Today when you visit the Tala region and happen to pass by the Khelat Babu lane and look up to admire the strength and beauty of the drab one-hundred-year-old ‘world’s largest drinking water tank’, who knows you may bump a shoulder with old man Gopi Chand, guardian of the iron receptacle that quenches the thirst of the 10.5 million people in the city of Kolkata in India’s West Bengal state.
Copyright © 2020 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
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