With the examination season on, people feel pity for the stressed students burning the midnight oil as well as for their parents who, in order to maintain silence in their homes, switch off their favourite soaps and serials and try to brush up their history, English or maths along with their children. It suddenly occurred to me that no one ever spares a thought that it is also an equally stressful time for teachers, especially the invigilators.
When I had joined service in a college in the suburbs of the city in the early 1980's, the institution was just born. In the middle of paddy fields with narrow aisles, there were no brick and mortar buildings, no sanitary arrangements, no electricity, just three rooms made of split bamboo meshing. Despite our lack of creature comforts it was bliss for the first ten years or so because the university never thought of setting up an examination center in such sparse settings. As our college grew, so did our woes. It soon became the center for various university and public exams and being short staffed, there was no way in which we could escape invigilation duties.
Those in the profession know that the first hour is bliss because students are not allowed to leave the examination hall. Then the melee begins. Everyone needs to go to the toilet and come back with various kinds of chits -- some concealed in their bodies, others supplied by the 'dadas' outside. Some of those micro-xerox notes and mini-chits required finer skill than writing on a grain of rice but the art has been perfected. Being very strict, I became a terror for some of these examinees. As soon as I entered my allotted room I could hear a loud sigh in unison -- "So the first paper is gone! No chance of passing this time!" When scolding, canceling, or reporting against them did not help, the examinees would sometimes even start threatening us. I remember having been called a daini buri (a witch); "maya doya heen patharer pran" (a heartless one with a soul of stone); and was even once instructed by a student to sit quietly at the end of the room and read the newspaper without lifting my eyes from it because the government would anyway pay me for my job. Fine logic. Once a young colleague of mine literally ran out of her room panic-stricken as some one had threatened her "laash fele debo" in the true style of cinematic villains. Then there were the aged repeating candidates who were so desperate to copy that one lost against them in the battle of wits. When caught copying, a primary school teacher once told me that she had to pass her BA exams this time otherwise she would lose her job as assistant headmistress. Surely I would not want that. Another man stated that his would-be father in law would fix his marriage date only when he produced his graduation certificate. Others offered equally genuine reasons why I should pity them and let them copy to their hearts content.
Unaware of the enemies I had built up during the course of one university exam session, the students had kept their patience in tact waiting to take revenge upon me on the last day. At around four o'clock that afternoon, the OC of the local police station suddenly arrived at our college in his jeep. I thought it was a routine affair. As the exam ended he politely offered to escort me to the city. It was so generous of him, I thought and felt elated. Led by the blinking red lamp and siren, for the first time in my life I felt like a VIP. As we winded through the narrow path and reached the corner of the paddy field, I was shocked to see a big group of boys standing there armed with stones and batons ready to teach me the lesson of my life. It then dawned on me that the police had somehow got wind of the matter and was there to act as our saviour. A week later when I read a newspaper report that a lady teacher from a nearby college had been heckled, beaten and thrown out of a local train on her way back home from invigilation duty, I thanked all my good stars that I was saved that day and had not become another four-line news item in the papers. Since then, as knitting sweaters has now become out of fashion, I try to catch up with all my pending reading during invigilation duty, and both the students and I feel happy.
Somdatta Mandal is Professor and Head, Department of English and Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati.