Trivial pursuit?

There was a time when saying that you liked 'to quiz' – pitting one's knowledge base against other quizzers – was dangerous. People would harangue you about finding a more desirable hobby, or yap about a little learning being a dangerous thing, or say something that ended with the dismissive phrase 'Morons with memories'. I learnt, over many years, that the best defence was to laugh at such responses, and ask whether national hobbies such as obsessing over cricket, minority-hatred or trawling the Internet for BBWs ('big, beautiful women', for the uninitiated) struck anybody as particularly more mature.

I don't find myself defending the pastime anymore. The 'knowledge economy' has resulted in a comical world in which quizzing is respectable. Nurturing a quiz team is one of the ways in which a business school can prove that their MBA packs muscle. Holding a quiz is the means by which folks in corporate employ can reassure themselves that they are knowledge-workers. And so on.

Neither way of looking at quizzing does it any justice. The second quiz I attended, while still in school, might say more. The first had ended in the inevitable headache that comes from making too many demands of one's memory. The second was longer, and was conducted by a kindly old man. One of the questions was about Zen having derived its name from a word in another language. I decided it had to be an Indian language, and set about trying to find a word that sounded like Zen. I came up with dhyana, and that was the correct answer. A little later, we were shown a slide of boys stomping around a court and asked to identify the sport. I noticed that there were no rackets involved, and remembered that the characters in P G Wodehouse's school novels played something called fives without rackets, and my guess was right again. I had never experienced anything similar before – random, half-forgotten details combining like this to offer a 'Eureka!' moment. I was hooked for life.

The old man who took us through 12 rounds of quizzing was G R Mulky, a retired Indian Air Force officer who founded the Karnataka Quiz Association (KQA). He ran the association singlehandedly for a decade and a half, and in that time the KQA's quizzes were perhaps the first space in which convent schools and ordinary schools, general degree colleges and professional colleges, and Kannada-speakers and chattering Anglophiles all met in open competition – not an easy thing to achieve in a small but strictly divided city. His efforts resulted in Bangalore's distinctive quizzing culture – small-scale, regularly held events, an emphasis on working answers out rather than on memory, and an easy, irreverent democracy among those who participate.

Several Indian cities can boast of an equally rich quizzing life. Chennai, where the Quiz Foundation continues to be active; Pune, well-known for its Boat Club Quiz Club; Hyderabad, where the K-Circle has organised quizzes since the 1970s; Guwahati, under the leadership of the redoubtable Dilip Barua; and Kolkata, once a hub of quizzing action and still a city that produces some of the best quizzers in India. Cities such as New Delhi and Mumbai were late starters but now also have organisations in place – Kutub Quizzers in the capital, and the Bombay Quiz Club of emphatic nomenclature. Smaller cities such as Bhubaneshwar, Coimbatore, Kochi and Panaji are quickest off the block when it comes to organising venues, publicity, prizes or participation for national events such as Mahaquizzer, KQA's annual solo championship.

True test
My own private test for the health of a quizzing community is to ask whether they have acquired a resident asshole. This creature is generally male, a petulant complainer, a hand-raiser, and a source of such constant irritation that all the others band together to ensure some general sanity. What constitutes such asshole-like behaviour? I can recall one individual who was single-handedly responsible for the 'no mobiles' rule that is still in place at KQA quizzes, for having texted for answers and using his phone's Internet capabilities. Another stole answers using his superb lip-reading skills, before going on to become an irritating quizmaster. Yet another was known to drive teams in the vicinity to self-destruction merely by maintaining a running post-mortem of the quiz in a voice of a metal-on-concrete timbre. Bangalore has dozens of such creatures, and so does Chennai. Hyderabad has maybe one or two, as does Kochi. Kolkata and Delhi, because of the way they are constituted as cities, are never likely to experience a shortage. These are the places where quizzing will survive willy-nilly. The real causes of worry are Mumbai and Panaji, because their quizzers seem to be uniformly nice people.

Sometimes these communities talk to each other – and the joy of eavesdropping on such conversations is not small. A recurring topic arises from what we can call a capital discontent – the continuing dispute over which city can describe itself as India's Quizzing Capital. The slanging was originally between Kolkata and Bangalore, before it turned into a Bangalore-Chennai slugfest; either way, the field is now wide open. Inter-city sledging is also organised around the quality of the questions. The term kitchen question was once coined to describe the cooked-up questions of a certain quizmaster – nobody quite remembers how it became such a derisive term. A Bangalore bloke coined the term TCQ – or Typical Chennai Question – to describe questions that looked like they came off the recent-deaths page on Wikipedia. The uncharitable implication – that Chennai players prepare for quizzes while 'artistic' Bangaloreans do not – results in much brotherly love.

The arrival of the Internet has only given a fillip to all the fun stuff. Some years ago, I discovered that the Pune quizzers liked to discuss questions, such as what makes for a good quiz, with pages of analysis and graphs – I spent several months wading through the stuff in repulsed fascination. And then somebody in Bangalore announced to the world at large, with a very Charlton-Heston-as-Moses set of chin, that good quizzes uniformly revealed three Bs – breadth, beauty and balance. Another beauteous use of the Internet is in abusing quizmasters. For decades, quizzers had to sit quiet while men with microphones made jokes at their expense. Payback, therefore, was corrosive and sublime. At least one celebrity quizmaster has flipped the bird at a Bangalore audience after a scathing review of previous efforts from various anonymous bloggers.

Quizzers are at their entertaining best when they are overtaken by the need to write their own history. The Wikipedia page 'Quizzing in India' was initiated by a Pune-based quizzer as a bland list of quizzing activities in several Indian cities. It lived in this largely blameless fashion for the first couple of weeks. And then, the page became a sort of mosh pit where amateur historians, self-promoters and guardians of city pride would vandalise each other's contributions – or have their chains yanked by cooler others, who would religiously delete every bit of PR. In time, it attracted its own Wiki Nazi, a roving editor named Ohnoitsjamie who went about deleting everything till that five-scroll article had shrunk to a svelte paragraph.

Despite Ohnoitsjamie's efforts, there is one liberty with historical fact the page continues to offer. To wit:

Quizzing in India began when Neil O'Brien conducted the first well organized, formal quiz in 1967 at Christ the King Church Parish Hall in Calcutta (now Kolkata). O'Brien who had recently returned from England, and had been exposed to the Pub quiz culture there, started quizzing; it first became popular among the Anglo Indian community before it became popular among a wider audience.While one's inner curmudgeon may merely growl at bad punctuation and slovenly writing, he cannot but rise and offer an unparliamentary finger to this biblical beginning.

The Darwin who rises in opposition to such blatant creationism will probably ask for proof that this one little event eventually cascaded into active quizzing across the country – and find none. He will point instead to another fact. After Independence, achieving government employment meant having to take many exams, and required some ability to ride this bucking beast named 'general knowledge', or 'G K'. In time, people began instituting G K prizes and competitions, contests that achieved something of the prestige of sporting contests. The oldest continuously held quiz in Bangalore goes back to 1958 – the Rotary Club's Ramnarayan Chellaram Inter-collegiate Quiz, which began life as a G K contest. Several Indian cities have tales of similar antiquity to offer.

Our Darwin will persist to wonder about how these contests, which were no more than tests of memory, began to change character, acquire complexity and attract an audience outside school and college. Eventually, he will find investigating the history of the media in India. Quizzes went thus from written tests to interactive events, with rounds cherry-picked from BBC radio shows, foreign television, and from several local traditions rich in riddling, puzzle-making and wordplay.

Miss and curse
Which brings us to the other problem with the Wikipedia account: it implies that quizzing originated as the pastime of the English-speaking classes. The content of today's quizzes would seem to suggest that the transition from memory test to mind sport happened through several moments of mixing and accommodation among the classes – between a large body of middle-class bilingual aspirants and a smaller Anglophile leisure-class. The Indian version of the sport differs significantly from the UK or US versions – where it is still largely about remembering trivia – because such a mixing occurred.

We will leave our Darwin wondering about how quizzing began to gently disengage itself from general knowledge. If you go by the drivel that quizzers like to believe, then one was for people who really, you know, 'got' things; the other for the competition-wallahs. One was beautiful because it served no purpose at all; the other was about getting ahead in life. Only one was about reading and living in a not-from-the-syllabus way. Our Darwin might yet find that this is not quite the truth.

To quiz, thus, is to be entertained occasionally by a goodly number of kooks. For its more reliable thrills – miss-and-curse more often than hit-and-giggle – we must return yet again to anecdote. Earlier this year, I sat for the Mahaquizzer as guinea pig – those who create the quiz like to see one victim before hundreds write the final product. I was somewhat miffed when the results came out to see that I might not have finished in the top ten. I was far more mortified by the fact that I had managed to miss the invitation for a good guess on this gem of a question:

Snell's law of refraction and the law of reflection of light both can be derived from the 'principle of least time' which was stated in 1662 by a multi-faceted scientist whose 'way of drawing tangents' inspired Isaac Newton's early ideas about calculus. Most of us probably know him for other marginal contributions. Name him.The one word that I somehow did not take in – marginal – would have reminded me of a story, of Pierre Fermat scribbling his Last Theorem in the pages of a copy of Diophantus's Arithmetica. I have whacked my forehead more times than is healthy, and will remember this sad miss till the day of my demise.

~ Arul Mani is a volunteer with the Karnataka Quiz Association in Bangalore.

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