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Cover Story: The Shining

Their powers of memory will boggle your mind. They’ve calculated more digits than you can count. They can strategise their way out of every puzzle grid and they know the answer to almost every question. Many of India’s brightest people might just be in your own city.

brunch Updated: Aug 04, 2012 17:49 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times

Their powers of memory will boggle your mind. They’ve calculated more digits than you can count. They can strategise their way out of every puzzle grid and they know the answer to almost every question. Many of India’s brightest people might just be in your own city.

The Quizzer

Jayashree Jayakar Mohanka, 52 years



Day job

: Businesswoman

Claim to fame:

Winner, Mahaquizzer 2012; In the top 10 since 2009.


Jayashree Jayakar Mohanka doesn’t believe she’s special. But no one who scores 81 out of a possible 150 in this year’s Mahaquizzer, possibly India’s toughest multidisciplinary quiz, can be ordinary. The questions don’t ask for capital cities, CEOs or celebrity gossip. They cover geography, history, etymology, popular culture, myths, science, sports, brands and more. Many, like this one, simply elude classification:

What will you make by using one of the following methods: Building, blending, muddling, rolling or layering (among others)?

Don’t know? Here’s the interesting bit – if you’re even moderately clued in to the world around you, you should be able to figure it out – in this case, Cocktails. And Mohanka has been clued-in right from the start, quizzing as a school student, taking on the boys in an all-girl team in Kolkata and relishing the thrill of the “a-ha! moment” when she’d arrived at the correct answer. “Quizzing is more than a memory game,” she says. “The questions are so quirky, you’ll never be able to answer them by mugging. People who quiz are naturally curious people, they read. You need to enjoy learning about new things. You cannot be trained for it.”

But you can crack it. Just trust your memory and power of association. “Questions often offer obscure trivia leading to an obvious answer, or have obvious facts and expect an obscure answer in return,” says Hemant Morparia, a radiologist, cartoonist and quiz veteran. If a question seems ridiculous, it’s probably referencing the thing that’s on everybody’s mind – a movie, a movement or trending topic on Twitter. Have a hunch or a half-remembered detail? Go with it. The best answers are ones you didn’t know you knew.

India’s quizzing community is large (we really are know-it-alls) and varied. Long-time participants say that Bangalore and Chennai are the hardest to beat; Mumbai likes big-money biz quizzes; and Delhi likes to fight for every point. Kolkata is where the first formal quiz was held in 1967. “Our style is more relaxed,” says Mohanka.

But her gripe is not the kind of crowd, but how fewer women are now participating. “Growing up, there used to be a lot of girl quizzers,” she recalls. “There aren’t that many anymore. I think it’s because the feminist movement was stronger. Now there’s more pressure for girls to do girly things. The idea of a girl being a nerd is just not popular.” Still, Mohanka isn’t giving up. “I think quizzing can be an older person’s game,” she says. “I get better as I age. There’s more time to read. There’s more time for everything.”

The Calculator

Priyanshi Somani, 14 years

Location: Surat

Day job: Std IX student

Claim to fame: Mental Square Root World Record holder, World Mental Calculation World Cup 2010 winner.


First, some numbers: In 2010, Priyanshi Somani participated in her first Mental Calculation World Cup, an event that tests exactly what its name suggests. She was 11, it was her first time and she’d only been practising for a month. Other competitors, 37 of them from 16 countries had been at it for far longer – the oldest person there was 61. Somani, however, trumped them all. She not only solved 10 assigned tasks correctly in 6.28 minutes but went a step further. She was expected to extract square roots from 10 six-digit numbers up to eight significant digits in 15 minutes. She did it in 6.15, setting a world record, winning the championship and the Fastest Calculator Trophy as well.

Early this year, Somani went up against the new square-root world record holder, Turkish Hakan Gürbaslar. The result? Square roots for another 10 six-digit numbers extracted, this time in 2.43 minutes. A new world record.

Somani’s family has strong calculating skills, and her own abilities were evident when she was only six, watching her brother solve sums and trying to do the same. "The best part about doing calculations is the speed," she explains. "I love anything and everything that has speed. When a math problem is in front of you, there are lot of processes that go on in your mind – the eye seeing the problem, the brain analysing it and trying to solve it in the least possible time, and finally putting it on the paper or screen. Challenging the speed of this cycle is what fascinates me. Making a new record is the target, every time."

To make sure Somani meets her targets, the whole family helps out, especially her mother, Anju, who is careful not to pressure her. “Being her mother, all I have to do is forget myself, get completely involved with her in all her activities, take care of her health, schedule, academics, mood swings, preparations etc,” Anju says. “But at the end, her fabulous performance brings immense amount of pride to the family.” At home, however, it’s Somani’s dad who still does the family accounts.

The Memory Grandmaster

John Louis, 42 years

Location: Trichy, Tamil Nadu

Day job: Former chemistry teacher, now memory trainer

Claim to fame: Indian Memory Champion 2010, India’s first Grand Master of Memory.

JohnBecoming a Grand Master of Memory is no easy task. The World Memory Sports Council, an international body that regulates memory sports around the world, has a tough test for hopefuls: Recall 1,000 random digits in 60 minutes, the order of 10 decks of cards in one hour and the order of a single deck in two minutes. Few succeed – as of June 2012, only 122 people around the world were awarded the title.

For Trichy-based John Louis however, total recall is a total breeze. He became India’s first Grand Master in 2003 but has always been wowing people with his skills of recollection. “I’ve naturally had a good memory all my life,” he says. “When nuns would tell us stories from the Bible, I’d make visuals in my head. I still haven’t forgotten them.”

Making mental pictures helped when Louis participated in a memory contest in Chennai, won it and went on to stand 19th in the World Championships in 2002. The brain can hold about seven items in the short term. But Championship contestants recall the orders of abstract images, numbers, binary codes, playing cards, words, dates, events and faces. “To do well, you have to make this stuff seem important so your brain can retain it longer,” says Louis. “You need concrete order for the abstract.”

Memory champs do this by creating mental images that symbolise the random data. “They imagine a palace filled with beautiful things or a journey with landmarks along the way,” Louis says. To make sure it sticks, think unusual – outrageous even. “I include fun elements,” he reveals. “For nations and capitals, imagine a war with poles on one side and saws on the other to remember Pole-Land and War-Saw, and think of a sign that says, ‘There’s no way.
So please go slow’ for Nor-way and O-slo.”

Memory contests and training programmes have taken Louis very far from Trichy – to Thailand, Singapore, China, Bahrain, Japan, Germany and beyond. Back home however, a good memory is both blessing and curse. “No one forgets anything in my family, though sometimes, before going out, I have to remind my wife where she left her purse. It often becomes hard to forgive when your every mistake is remembered.”

Can you answer these Mahaquizzer zingers?
“Plastics”, (from The Graduate) is one of the only two one-word quotes on the AFI’s list of 100 movie quotes. Which is the other?
Rosebud (from Citizen Kane)

This region’s name means “four circuits of rivers and gorges”. The cuisine of this region is categorised as one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of China. The peppercorn flavour makes it suitable to the Indian palate.

If you double the letter ‘O’ in this word you get the dense chewy treat made with sweetened coconut. If you tag the letter ‘I’ to it, you get the name the Yankee soldier gave to his hairstyle after sticking a feather in his hat. Give the exact spelling of the French confection that has two hard outer shells sandwiched together with a soft creamy centre, like a cream biscuit.

While working on a prototype, he began looking around for inspiration. When he saw his assistant using red nail polish, something clicked and the rest is history. Who is this associated with the world of fashion?
Christian Louboutin

The puzzler

Rohan Rao, 21 years

Location: Mumbai

Day job: Post-graduation Statistics student at IIT Bombay

Claim to fame: Winner of the Indian Sudoku Championship in 2010, 2011 and 2012; Indian Puzzle Championship

winner 2010, 2011 and 2012; currently ranks 12 on the World Sudoku circuit and 34 in the World Puzzle stakes.

Rohan Rao

Rohan Rao has always been fascinated by numbers. "Growing up, I’d count everything; even school buses on the way home," he says. So it wasn’t a surprise that in 2006, at the height of India’s Sudoku craze, he found himself winning a local contest. What surprised him, and ended up becoming a wake-up call to puzzle greatness, was when he lost the next year. "I screwed up," he says simply. "It made me realise that I wanted to do this better."

So Rao kept practising and solved various other puzzles until he got better. He climbed steadily in the rankings for the annual Indian Sudoku and Indian Puzzle Championships until he won both in 2010, repeating his successes in 2011 and 2012. The wins have opened the doors to an even bigger, tougher battle: The World Puzzle Championship (WPC) and the World Sudoku Championship.

It’s puzzling paradise. Brain teaser addicts from across the world pit their strategy and problem-solving skills in two annual events organised by the World Puzzle Federation (Yes, there is such a thing). In addition to Sudoku, contestants take a crack at 15 super-tough grid-based logic puzzles, from the familiar Kakuro, to ones with intimidating names such as Slitherlink, Battleship, Hitori, Masyu and Tapa. There’s also one called Easy As ABC. Do not be misled by the name.

This year’s edition will be held in Croatia in October and as a 20-something Indian, the odds are stacked against Rao. "Japan, the USA and east Europe are the biggest competition," he says. The average age there is 32, and the most successful contestant (seven titles since 2000) is a 46-year-old German. It doesn’t worry Rao. He was 17 the first time he made it to the WPC, and his rankings show that he’s been getting better every year.

Success doesn’t come to those who curl up with the leisure section of the paper on Sunday mornings. "It’s is all about practice," Rao explains. "You need to keep at it through the year to be good. Stop practising and your rankings drop." You also need absolute focus and concentration to beat the clock (and your competitors). "But the best thing is that it’s convenient. Unlike tennis, you don’t need a venue. You can solve puzzles any time, any place."

And Rao assures that anyone can do it. For logic tests, you don’t need to be good at Maths, or even English. "Puzzles have no language. At WPC, you could be sitting next to a guy who’s never spoken a word of English. You’d communicate with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. But he’s cracked a puzzle you couldn’t."

The experience is its own reward. The championships offer no prize money. Even Rao’s foreign trips come at his father’s expense. But for puzzlers, it’s actually forged a sense of brotherhood rather than competition. Of the world’s top 10 puzzle geniuses, six share new strategies on their blogs. Rao himself contributes puzzles of his own making to Akil Oyunlari, a Turkish puzzle magazine, and organises several contests in India.

Rao believes he has miles to go before he’s conquered puzzles entirely. "I’ve won six titles but I want to reach 50," he says. It won’t be easy and that’s why he’s looking forward to it. "I like it when someone beats me. It makes me push myself. Somewhere along the line, another Rohan will want to beat me. That’s when the fun will start!"

Lab-Grown Geniuses
Semiconductors, string theory and stem cells. These men are making sure you follow it all
We’re trying to be the copywriters of science,” says Surendra Kulkarni, when asked to explain what he and scientist Arnab Bhattacharya advertise in the name of science on Sunday mornings. He’s not far from the truth. With Chai And Why, the Outreach initiative of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the two indeed give hard science some pretty cool packaging. A dull paper on olfactory research becomes a programme called “Khushboo Ya Badboo? It’s all in the brain”, rocket science becomes “Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow!”, wireless communication turns into “2G, 3G, 4G... Yeh kya hai ji?” and
carbonation morphs into... wait for it... “Why This Cola Very Di?”

The orb couple: TIFR’s Surendra Kulkarni (left) and Arnab Bhattacharya with their model of a bucky ball, a form of carbon

In the know

Bhattacharya, the Outreach head whose his regular job involves such delightful subjects as semiconductor lasers, optoelectronic devices, and formations of quantum nanostructures, has worked to make tough ideas, big words and complicated theories understandable for the dumbass and the smartass for the last three years.

“The concept isn’t new,” he says, citing the Café Scientifique programmes that have been organised around the UK since 1998. But Kulkarni, who handles the administrative side of things, explains that Chai and Why specifically is a “two-pronged attack”: making science popular and encouraging scientists to take their work out of the lab. “Nobody wants to ‘learn science’,” says Bhattacharya. “But today, you cannot live without it. It’s even in your cellphone. But if there are questions – Is it safe to carry in my pocket? Do I live too close to a cellphone tower? – there’s no one to ask. Scientists actually love talking about their work. The trouble is, they get too technical and people continue to believe that certain ideas are beyond their comprehension.”

Chai And Why re-jigs and re-positions the stuff of scientific journals into a morning of interactive fun. “Often, my only input in a session has been, ‘Boss, why don’t you change the title?’” Bhattacharya says. “Wouldn’t you rather come to a talk called Ande Ka Funda than Embryonic Development?” The funda has worked – Kulkarni estimates that Chai And Why has reached people from Sikkim to Madurai. In Mumbai fans travel 175 km from Pune for their programmes; and one regular even made it to the session that fell on his wedding day.

How they do it
“Of course, you need patience,” says Bhattacharya. “You also need to break a complex idea into smaller, simpler parts and find analogies that get the big picture across even if they are not 100 per cent accurate.” When explaining the difference between tubelights and lasers, he knew a textbook definition about stimulated emission would be no fun – so he used songs instead. Diffused tube light was Awaara Hoon but lasers were Kadam Kadam Badhaye Jaa and explained that lasers were actually light particles marching in step. “The best thing you can do with most school science textbooks is to throw them out of the window,” Bhattacharya believes. “Because science is best learnt by doing. There’s no better way than a hands-on experiment to figure out something.”

MythbustersNine-year-old Shourya Vaswani is a pretty hands-on fan. The class V student has brought his own specimens to a session on crystal growth and asks the interesting questions. "I’ve learnt how the brain is so stupid, it doesn’t know about optical illusions," Vaswani says. But he’d never recommend it to a friend. "You know how most people have secret solutions? This is my secret solution. I only tell my classmates Dr Bhattacharya’s jokes.

So you want to be a science geek?

Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel. All those urban legends tried and tested

Log On
To Brainwave-controlled Pong, nanobots, flying cars – it’s all here

Wonders Of The Universe by Brian Cox. Galaxies far far away aren’t so distant anymore

Science City Kolkata. Fun, games, learning. And no exams at the end!


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First Published: Aug 04, 2012 11:51 IST