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The singular passion of the quintessential quizzer

The rags-to-riches story of a Mumbai boy who wins a television quiz — much like Kaun Banega Crorepati — is set to be a major contender for Oscars this year. But Slumdog Millionaire is not the story of the quintessential quizzer, writes Kshitij Prabhat Bal.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2009 22:07 IST
Kshitij Prabhat Bal
Kshitij Prabhat Bal
Hindustan Times

The rags-to-riches story of a Mumbai boy who wins a television quiz — much like Kaun Banega Crorepati — is set to be a major contender for Oscars this year. But Slumdog Millionaire is not the story of the quintessential quizzer. That qualifier is for the guy who stocks up on his trivia, and then flocks to quizzes to engage in encylopaedic battles with like-minded people.

At the end of such efforts, they win meagre sums of money in dimly-lit, half-empty auditoriums. Their passion is unlikely to ever earn them a million. But that doesn’t mean a whole bunch of them are not well-off. During the day, quintessential quizzers earn their bread as doctors, policemen, politicians, bureaucrats and engineers. But an old-fashioned round of quizzing with fingers poised on the buzzer is what really gets their blood pumping.

“It’s a sort of quirk… it gives me quite a kick. And it’s not really just about trivia and knowledge. It’s more about your general awareness, interests and ability to think laterally. But really, quizzers are all just mad,” says Joy Bhattacharjya, director of the Kolkata Knight Riders cricket team and a quiz junkie himself.

The Income Tax Commissioner of Kolkata, Souvik Guha, for example, was introduced to the mind sport in school. He says, “I was in class eight when we won a quiz. Since then more than 30 years have passed, and I always make it a point to take part in all the big quizzes in the city.”

In Guwahati, there's advocate Angshuman Bora, who, when not practising at the high court, spends his time “loading up on ammo” to throw at other quizzers. The 35-year-old calls quizzing “an intoxicant, aphrodisiac and anabolic steroid rolled into one”. Bora believes that the game embodies “the quest to know and to test how much others know, that truly makes life worth living.”

Arul Mani, 37, an English lecturer at St Joseph’s College and a quizmaster for the Karnataka Quiz Association, meets 10-15 friends every Sunday afternoon at Koshy’s restaurant in the heart of Bengaluru to have quizzing ‘battles’ that last 3-4 hours and cover a range of topics — including desserts.

Birds of a feather

Today the country is dotted with many such quiz clubs and associations around which much of the open quizzing scene is based. Whether it be the Kutub Quizzers of Delhi, the Karnataka Quiz Association, the Bombay Quiz Club and the Quiz foundation of India (QFI), these clubs may cater only to a small but engaged minority. They have healthy membership rosters and eager participation. In fact, on November 30, the Bombay Quiz Club held a quiz despite the terror attacks of 26/11. As they say on their blog, “the best way to fight these blues is to get on with life as usual”.

Major Bhattacharya, an army doctor, and other quiz junkies began the Kutub Quizzers to bring open quizzing under an umbrella organisation.

Meanwhile Dr Naveen Jayakumar, an eye specialist based in Chennai and a founding member of the Chennai chapter of the QFI, has been quizzing since his college days in the late 70s. Even today, he participates in quizzes but is better known as the quizmaster of the Landmark Open Quiz that is held yearly. According to Naveen, “Chennai still has an intellectual culture and the interest in reading,” and quizzing has gone up as a trend among the youth.

Agrees his friend and teammate, Gopal Kidao, “The response is very good whenever we conduct, with the number of teams going up every year. For instance, the Odyssey Open Quiz used to attract 300 to 400 teams, but last year it shot up to almost 800.”

Working capital

But which city can be called the quiz capital of the country? That’s one question that leaves even the best quizzers foxed.

The views differ. But the general debate is between Bengaluru and Kolkata. While most veterans believe that Kolkata will always remain the epicentre, as the quizzing tradition took birth there, there are some who believe that trends are changing. According to C.P. Singh, the director of formal education of IMS learning and an avid quizzer, “Though we have many bright quizzers in Kolkata but once they graduate they go out of the city keeping our quizzing circuit parched for talent. Bengaluru now has the best quizzing talents because most of those who are avid quizzers in schools and colleges ends up with some job in Bengaluru.”

Arul Mani has a different take on this. For him, the real action is in the B-towns of the country such as Mangalore and Mysore surpass those of Bengaluru, where the trend is dying away.

Subir Das, an LIC cashier from Guwahati and his partner Miftahuddin Ahmed, an election officer, find an “escape route” in quizzing. According to Ahmed, “Passion made us organise quiz contests and spend Rs 1,000 to travel 300 km for a prize money of Rs 3,000.”

Then there are the rumours and stories that fly around the circuit. Like the Inspector General of Police who is often seen at quizzes and the pair of Bengaluruan executives who are known to fly down to attend every open quiz in the country. Often, these people are known only by their surname or the name of their team, but fame travels along the circuit fast, and respect is given to only those who are quick to the buzzer. But why the variety? According to Devangshu Dattta, a writer and a quizzer, “quizzers form a small minority, but they come from all over. The only thing they share in common is a college education.”

Archana Garodia won Mastermind India, one of the most popular quizzes ever broadcast on BBC in 2001 and again the Champion of champions quiz in 2002. Once a month or so, the IIM-A graduate and the owner of a fashion jewellery chain, likes to get quizzing. And the best part she says is, “I don’t need to prepare for it — it’s simply a byproduct of my reading.” The veteran quizzer from Delhi, no longer flies down to other towns to quiz, but she believes that Delhi has a relatively young quizzing scene, compared to Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru where the oldies still come out to challenge kids in their shorts and uniforms.

One such veteran quizzer, R.M. Sen, calls quizzing “an inspired quest for knowledge”. The 76-year-old, a senior executive with an MNC before he retired, is one of the grand old men of quizzing. He’s seen it all. From the Eddie Hyde memorial quiz which was the oldest open quiz in India, to the Dalhousie Institute Open quiz which still enjoys a fan following even today.

According to Sen, the beauty of open quizzes is that there is truly no bar on age, with IPS and IAS officers competing with college and school students.

Sen reminisces about the Standard Chartered Senior Manager who knew him from quizzing, the lady quizzer who is also the vice president of a newspaper company, a teacher from a B-school, he realises that diversity amongst quizzers is perhaps their most defining characteristic.

So look closely at seemingly boring colleagues around you when you go to work next — maybe, at the core of their cold, stiff exterior, there is a knowledge rich, lateral thinker, who prefers to spend time battling over the buzzer, partly out of a sense of lost nostalgia, and partly to relive the rush that can come from knowing that the farthest planet from the Sun, is not Pluto but Neptune, as it’s orbit is elliptical at some parts of its rotation.

First Published: Jan 03, 2009 21:56 IST