Rukmini Banerji – ASER Memories: ASER on the platform

rbIt was perhaps the first or second ASER. We were getting ready for the state level training in Uttar Pradesh. Then, like now, once September starts there is no one left in the office in Delhi. Little dots on a giant map, we get scattered all over the country. All hands are needed. Needed for all kinds of tasks.

I cannot remember how it came to be but the entire set of survey formats, training manuals, tools for the seventy districts of Uttar Pradesh was late. Each district’s ASER material is packed into a box, all in all about five to ten kilograms of paper. The state level training was due to start in a day or two in Lucknow but all the cardboard boxes for UP were still in Delhi. I was due to go to Lucknow for the training and so the logical thing to do was to offer to carry all the boxes with me.

Early next morning, we arrived at New Delhi Railway Station to catch the Shatabdi to Lucknow. With me was one of my Pratham colleagues, Saktibrata Sen. He was going to Lucknow for some other work and we decided to go together. Those who know Sakti will agree that Sakti was and is a “guru dev” (my nickname for him). The type of fellow who is incredibly knowledgeable about so many things but practically of not much use in day to day matters of life.

That morning I was looking forward to the journey. Travelling with Sakti was a treat. He could entertain you with stories of the music world peppered with wise insights about classical music. Like many others in Pratham, he did not have previous work experience in education; he had been in the music marketing business. But best of all, he had deep knowledge of classical texts coupled with an abiding love of food; so he could regale you with references to Ram and Sita’s menu while in exile in the forest, what Krishna Chaitanya ate for breakfast or the ways in which marriage feasts were planned in Rabindranath Tagore’s home.

In Delhi, we had no problem. Or at least I did not see any. The Delhi based “behind-the-scenes” ASER crew had done their job. The seventy cardboard boxes of ASER material for Uttar Pradesh were loaded quickly and stacked neatly in the luggage van of the train. Seeing Sakti and me chatting in the chair car over the repeated flasks of tea that are served on the Rajdhani train, you would never guess that we were carrying perhaps the most cargo of any other passenger that day.

That afternoon, the train arrived at Charbagh station right on time. Passengers gathered their bags, belongings and children and began leaving the train. We waited till the coast was clear. Having completed all our chats and meals with great relish, Sakti and I sauntered towards the back of the train towards the luggage van. Lo and behold, what do we see there?

The Shatabdi cargo team was unloading luggage like perhaps they always do. Two men up on the carriage lift up a piece of luggage from the van and throw it roughly onto the platform. This technique works well with parcels wrapped in gunny sacks and with wooden or metal boxes. But when you do this with cardboard boxes it spells disaster. Many of our boxes had already been taken off the train in this fashion. The boxes were in pieces, unceremoniously dumped, and their contents scattered as far as you could see. Everywhere you looked, up and down, the platform was strewn with hundreds and hundreds of ASER survey sheets, tools, manuals and dismembered pieces of cardboard boxes. It was as if a black and white carpet had been laid out for a hundred metres or even more – all with the ASER papers.

My memory fails me from this point onwards. I cannot remember if I actually did this or have just imagined myself doing it… behaving with our ASER material like a mother in a Hindi movie who leaps screaming onto the chest of a wounded son. I do remember scrambling around ineffectually on my knees on the railway platform, trying to collect as much paper as I could before a breeze blew it all onto the railway tracks. In the middle of this confusion I also do recollect thinking that I wish I had someone more practical than Sakti to help me out of this predicament!

After this there is no memory – or at least I don’t have any. Perhaps I should ask Sakti. Like a bad Hindi movie video, which you quickly put in fast forward mode, the next image I have is of being with the UP team on the first day of the ASER state training. Everything in its place and work moving forward smoothly.

ASER happened that year like clockwork like it does each year. But never ever again have I offered to carry boxes of ASER materials on a train to anywhere.

Rukmini Banerji ,

CEO, Pratham Education Foundation