A close encounter

Rukmini Banerji
It was late by the time we could leave. The printer had just finished the final print of the materials we needed. Books, charts, reports and other things too had to be loaded. There were cartons, boxes and sacks. One by one these packages were loaded on to the carrier of the vehicle. Although it had not rained all day, there were clouds in the sky. It could rain at any time. The luggage on top was covered with tarpaulin and tied tightly. All this took time. Finally we were ready. Five young men from the Assam team, a mountain of luggage, the driver and me. It was almost ten at night as we left Guwahati.
The night was going to be a long one. We had to cover almost 500 km to our destination. The new Pratham District Resource Centre for Assam is between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. The training for DRC evaluation was to start the next morning. The trainers, the state head, the DRC coordinator, two other district coordinators, all the testing tools and instruction sheets – everything had to reach Dibrugarh by the morning in time for the training to start. 
Getting out of Guwahati is a nightmare. The trucks are allowed to move out of the city only at night. As a result, a massive number of trucks clog the winding hill road near Khanapara. There is road construction going on to widen the road. Rain from the day before had turned the entire area into a sea of slush. There was a constant roar of truck engines and sound of spinning tyres splashing through the mud filled potholes. Exhaust fumes, smoke and smell of petrol and diesel filled the air. 
Through all this noise, we heard a strange straining noise from the top of the car. The driver put his hand out of to feel the carrier above. It seemed that the carrier had slid forward and buckled under the weight of the luggage. We could not stop, even to check till we were well out of the jam of the city. 
Thirty kilometers out of Guwahati, in a stretch where the highway widened, we stopped. The driver’s door could not open. Neither could the door of the front passenger seat. The pieces of metal that held the carrier to the car body had bent down and slid to jam the door frame. With some difficulty we got out. The sky was cloudy but the moon was shining brightly (it was the night after Rakhi Poornima). Despite the constant roar of passing trucks, there was a quick discussion of what was to be done. The final decision was to take down all the packages and re-pack the load. 
The process of repacking began. Three people climbed on the top of the Sumo. The carefully tied tarpaulin was untied. Boxes and sacks were handed down. One sack had certificates and ASER reports. These were taken out and arranged like blocks to raise the base of the carrier. Everyone was joking and laughing. Someone said, “See how strong paper can be – it can bend steel”. 
Just then a police van went past. It passed us and then stopped. The doors of the van opened. Five or six policeman with big torches and weapons came towards us. Our team did not stop working but I noticed that everyone had become silent. 
“Who are you? Where are you going?” asked the first policeman who reached us. In the middle of the night, well outside the city with five young men and a mountain of cartons and with a long history of insurgency and violence – the answer “We are an NGO” seemed weak and unconvincing even to my own ears. The policemen questioned some more. “We work in education – so that children can go to school and learn well”. The chief policeman had been watching the process of re-loading. “Are these all books?” he asked. Abhijit began to explain how important it was that all children learned to read and the need for supplementary reading materials for children.
The chief policeman thought for some time. The headlights from passing trucks sporadically illuminated the scene. The moon slipped in and out of the clouds. Everyone was holding their breath wondering what was going to happen next. The policeman then said, “Since you people are in education, I must ask you a question. Do you think matric exams should be abolished?” 
For the next forty five minutes, there was an intense discussion about the importance and the role of matric exams in the life of families and children. How aspirations are tied to exam performance. How much people remember who came first which year. What will children strive for if the exams are removed? The other policemen had lost interest and wandered back to their van. 
The policeman continued. “DGP of Police of Assam he came first in his matric exams in 1982. I still remember thinking that this boy will go far. Every year I read in the paper about who has come first and who has come second and from which district. That is how we come to know where the schools are good. Abhijit tried to bring the conversation around to the new bill that had been passed in Parliament a few days ago. But our policeman was not interested in abstract things. He went back to his concrete concern. “I feel proud for these children who are doing well. We wait each year about how the children we know are doing”…. “Kapil Sibal? He has come from a high court or Supreme Court. Can he understand common concerns of common (“sadharon”) people?” 
Our luggage had been repacked and our work was done. We hesitantly took leave of our policeman. He seemed sad to see us go. The gentleman thanked us profusely. “You all are educationists, I am a common man. Thank you for listening to my views.” 
By morning we had reached Dibrugarh. All along the way, on foot and on cycles there were groups of young girls and boys on their way to high school. Looking at the laughing chatting young people I wondered if behind each of these children, there is someone who stays up till midnight worrying about policies made in Delhi.