Tuesday, November 27, 2007

manhole covers part 3

Manhole covers part 1, and part 2. So the meditation on manholes is still incomplete but now I guess is the time to put some more of the incomplete meditations (this part written back in May) out here on the blog... after this story carried by NYT, and forwarded to me by Elizabeth, Sashi and ES.

Manhole. Such a strange word. Almost as if it was an opening inviting men to fall into the netherworld. Like the urban legend of Calcutta streets in the monsoon, knee deep in water, where unsuspecting waders are said to suddenly vanish in a trail of bubbles because of careless workers forgetting to replace the covers.

But who are them men who use these holes? How many people have you met recently who have climbed down one into the land of shit and alligators? Except perhaps by accident, like Alice down the rabbit hole, like the hapless waders of Calcutta? Manholes are round and could seem inviting, like the doors of hobbit dwellings, but they are entrances to a forbidden world, a world driven deep underground, a world of shit and miasma.

"Paris has another Paris under herself," Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, 182, "a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, its arteries, and its traffic, which is slime." Sewers, he added, were "the conscience of the city" - they tell all: "no more false appearances, no plastering over ... filth removes its shirt ... there is nothing more except what really exists." The modern metropolis, like Jean Valjean's Paris, is based on the separation of the world of shit and the world of men. This was not always the case.

London, 1858. The Houses of Parliament had to be closed because the stench from the river, receiving all the waste of the city from all the cesspits and open drains flowing into it. This was the London stalked by miasma, the foul reek and bad vapours present pretty much everywhere that were supposed to cause cholera, and a death rate unheard of since the Black Death.

The foul, killing reek of miasma was countered by Joseph Balzagette's building London's modern sewer system by laying 83 miles of brick lined tunnels. This was system of tunnels which enclosed the the ordure of the city, and flushed it far below the city and away downriver. The miasma was banned to the netherworld. One of Joseph Balzagette's main supporters was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whose father built the famous (and still used) tunnel under the Thames. It worked, though for all the wrong reasons. The brick line tunnels separated the shit from the water supply, and prevented further massive outbreaks of cholera.

Once the cholera bacillus was discovered in 1876 (11 years after the opening of the London sewer systems) cities without sewers, without the separation of shit and men, became unimaginable. In India, in Delhi, a city without a major history of epidemics, which functioned through a system of shallow, covered, sub-surface drains and 'nightsoil' collectors, the first sewer systems built in the late 1890's, proved to be inefficient and prone to clogging. Meanwhile in the Presidency Town of Calcutta, the capital of British India, its populace expanding rapidly as impoverished peasants came to work in the jute mills; a sewer sytem of tunnels with unprecedentedly large diameters, made with a technology for curving bricks which was later used (along with cast iron and concrete) in the digging of the 'deep cover' (as opposed to the cut and cover) lines of the London Underground.

Sewers were modernity. The collection of nightsoil, people carrying shit on their heads, became anathema. Gandhi campaigned against it systematically, considering it violative of human dignity; especially because those who carried the shit were of the lowest castes. But the sewers have not liberated the untouchables from dealing with shit. It's just that now no one else has to. In India, they are the ones whose lot it is, de facto, to go down the manholes and clear the sewers. One of the rarely told stories of Partition is how the Hindu sweepers of the city were not allowed to leave Karachi – even when the riots started. For who else would clean the sewers, running then with blood and God knows what else?

... The generalized miasma of the nineteenth century city exists in the sewers in concentrated form. Sewer gas is methane and sulphides and other inflammable and noxious gases, under pressure. Only those who have to enter the manholes now have to deal with the miasma. But sometimes on hot days, strange alchemy brews in those deep tunnels – sewer gas is known to occasionally blow off even the considerable weight of manhole covers. Passing by Lexington and 58th, I have seen liquid nitrogen being pumped into manholes.

Most of the iron for the manhole covers in New York now come from Durgapur, two hours to the west of Calcutta.
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