Tickling those grey cells
Some personal reminiscing on a former hobby, nay passsion: quizzing.
One activity that I sorely miss since coming to the US is quizzing. Back in India, I would try to attend as many quiz contests as possible: preferably as a participant, but at least as an audience. I used to be quite a news and trivia junkie (I still am, with blogs providing the daily fix now). There is something oddly fascinating and challenging about knowing out of the way facts such as who played the guitar riff in the prelude to ‘Chura Liya Hain’, or why the former Chinese premier, Deng Xiaoping would have visiting dignitaries sit only on his left side etc (not because he was a leftist). I think my initial interest developed from watching the Siddarth Basu hosted national collegiate quiz show, ‘Quiz Time’ on good ole Doordarshan. My first tryst with regular quizzing was with a bunch of friends back in high school, when we formed an unofficial quiz club. Each of us would host a quiz in our house while rest permutated to form two-member teams. The winners would get a wrist band or something similar worth a princely sum (in those days) of five to ten rupees! In those pre-www days, much of our knowledge came from voracious reading of the newspaper, and closly following the World this Week, Prannoy Roy‘s weekly news show.
In the early to mid-90s, the Kolkata quizzing circuit was a lively lot (I hope it still is), particularly under the patronage of the Dalhousie Institute (‘DI’) and the doyen of quizzing in India, Neil O’Brien. Quite a few summer evenings have been well spent at their outdoor set-up on basketball courts, often ignoring the threat of an impending Nor’wester (Kalbaishakhi Jhar). They would host a wide variety of contests, including the DI Open, the Loser’s Plate, the Argus Open, the Eddie Hyde, the Summer Invitation etc and also the final stages of the national level Sportsworld and Bata North Star quizzes.
Neil and his two sons, Derek (later to become nationally famous through the Bournvita contest on TV and his horrendous fashion sense) and Barry (who worked in some mysterious capacity in my high school) used to conduct the majority of these quizzes. As quizmasters, they had contrasting fashions. Neil O’Brien was witty but always in a sober, school-teacher manner (he used to be the principal of St James school in Kolkata) and infamous for questions starting with ‘In the days of the Raj…’. He was also very intolerant of contestants who would hem and haw and try to fish around for answers. Barry, my personal favorite quiz-master, on the other hand was more jovial and enthusiastic. He had a lot of questions that could be ‘worked out’ without knowing all the facts. He was quite famous in the school fest quizzing circuit (it is to be noted that our school never won a quiz when he was the quizmaster) eventually leading to his hosting of the Limca Book of Records school quiz. He also introduced various innovations such as the ‘live’ rounds, which I never really liked, but was quite popular with the masses. It would consist of some sort of a short live performance by a musician, actor or sometimes even a whole dance troupe and you would get asked a question based on that. I never had high opinions of Derek – he was too short in temper, sometimes even to the point of being dismissive of the contestants and tried to show-off a bit. Still, I think he did well as the host of the Bournvita Quiz contest on Zee TV; if only he would stop wearing those bright colored kurtas.
[Aside: One would occasionally catch a glimpse of former, minor or even future celebrities at the DI. Leander Paes and his father, former hockey player Vace Paes, former tennis players Premjit Lal and Jaideep Mukherjee would hang out there. During the Sportsworld quiz, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi (who was the nominal editor of Sportsworld at that time), usually sans Sharmila, would grace the occasion and even ask a question or two. Other famous sports writers like Rohit Brijnath and Mudar Patherya could be seen as well. Once there was a lot of hullabaloo when actress Debashree Roy turned up. /Aside]
Among the other quiz-masters, I can remember the names of Francis Groser, John Mason, Jug Suraiya and some Sen-dude. Later on, some of the Jadavpur University(JU)/Presidency quizzers went over to the other side of the mike. Unfortunately, there would also be the occasional blot on the landscape, particularly one Parnab Mukherjee (see here, or here for more on him). Thankfully, I did not have to endure too many of his pseudo-quizzes as I left Kolkata as he was emerging as a ‘star’. Another bit of recollection from the DI-days is some of the unusual team names for the open quizzes – Vae Victus (the JU team that used to win an obscene number of quizzes), Nutcrackers (I think it was an all girls team), Pagla Dasu, El Dorado (team consisting of yours truly) etc.
Although I was never really that good a quizzer, I did have my moments of glory in team events, both at school and college level. We secured the third place in the Maggi School Quiz held during the platinum (?) jubilee celebration of DI and a second position at some school fest quiz. My crowning glory, so as to say, was winning the quiz as the IIT-Kharagpur team at REBECCA, the Bengal Engineering College (BEC) fest, which was triply sweet since we snubbed a JU team consisting of Parnab, and my then-girlfriend-present-wife, a student at BEC, was in the audience cheering us on. Additionally, there has been the odd win at intra/inter-Hall and open quizzes at Kharagpur. Eventually, I also ended up conducting a few quizzes on my own at Kharagpur and later on at Mumbai, something I thoroughly enjoyed. My participation level actually dropped off a bit after moving to Mumbai. I would participate in some of the intra-IIT quizzes but was too lazy to make the trips from Powai to attend local college fest quizzes and others. Besides, the IIT-Mumbai quiz team at that time was pretty strong (they had won or made it to the finals of Siddharth Basu’s Summit Quiz), and there was very little chance for me to get into it. Of course the Indian concept of quizzing is pretty much alien in the US (here it’s usually called a trivia contest). I do try to follow Jeopardy and somehow manage not to gnash my teeth when Alex Trebek tries to be cleverly funny. I `have never really liked the ‘Millionaire’ type shows – it’s more of a game show rather than any mental challenge.
My only connection with quizzing in recent times has been through the net. I did become a member in a Yahoo group called Quiznet and even submitted the occasional set of questions. But, their quality steadily declined and online quizzing is not that much fun anyway. It’s too tempting to use Google when you do not know an answer. There are a few blogs that post some quizzes but not very regularly. Recently, Gaurav Sabnis of Vantage Point fame, posted a quiz on his blog, based on a real time quiz he had conducted. I had some fun at cracking it while staying honest (no googling). I managed 14 out of – 30. Less than 50% – but then the top score was 17, so not too shabby I guess. Anyways, that small bit of self-promotion was the whole inspiration for this post. Back to my day job.