A column for The Hindu on … quizzing. Thanks to Radhika for pressing me to write after long. 

“We always read for one of two things — information or pleasure”.

My college English professor often spouted this fountain of obvious wisdom every now and then. But I don’t think I used to think, back then at least, that the two could go hand-in-hand. What was important for an 18-year-old me was to read facts for what they were and recollect it in my head during quizzes to score points. These points were very important, especially when there were cash prizes at stake — a difference of 5 points could mean a potential loss of Rs. 2,500 or in the case of business quizzes with plump sponsors, multiple times of that.

So the natural thing thing to do (at least what some of us thought back then) would be to keep your daily dose of Wikipedia completely disconnected from your reading of say, Paulo Coelho or Jhumpa Lahiri (“What question could possibly arise out of the boring Interpreter of Maladies?”). The dry Wikipedia-and-old-trivia-books-mugging method persisted for most of the time. And that’s how most college quizzes used to function. You see a keyword in the midst of all the text on the projector slides and hit the buzzer.

“This started as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Illinois, …”

*BUZZ*

“MOTOROLA!”

“The blue agave found in Mexico …”

“TEQUILA!” (The liquor is made from that plant)

And then when you seek to unlock new levels of awesomeness on the bigger stages (the open quizzes), you hit a roadblock. There are some questions so beautifully framed and possibly, so complex that there would be no way you could have answered it without having read the piece of associated literature. These were nothing like your college quizzes — most of which were set in the twelfth hour and scraped from older powerpoint presentations. There was considerable amount of research that had gone into setting them. A major portion of that effort required reading books (fiction, non-fiction, pulp thrillers, comics … the whole lot). And after several occasions, the goal was no longer about brownie points. It was about whether you remembered the story behind why you actually knew the answer. This is slightly relatable to that feeling Dev Patel’s character has when he keeps giving right answer after right answer on the quiz show in Slumdog Millionaire. He hasn’t scoured through Wikipedia articles and infused trivia in his brain; there’s actually a story behind every answer. An emotional connect, be it joy, sadness or even anger. And nowhere is this more relatable than reading a good book that narrates facts in the most recollective style of prose. Sample this:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Chances are you’ll never forget Rozier’s name from now. I can’t say the same if you encountered him on Encyclopaedia Brittanica though.

I had a fractional Slumdog Millionaire moment once in high school: “Who was the first man to set foot on the Hipparchus Crater on the Moon?” read the question. When I noticed teams before us were listing out possible names of astronauts from the Apollo Missions and were not getting any affirmative reaction from the quizmaster, I picked up the mike and said: “Tintin”.

That was possibly the greatest moment of ecstasy I felt back then. You needed to have read Destination Moon in-and-out to crack that one.

Another memorable one (although this was on an online forum) was when someone asked: “What reason do travel guides usually give to unwary tourists when they want to know why temples like Khajuraho have erotic sculptures?”

The answer: ‘So that the people, in the aftermath of the bloody Kalinga War, would be aroused to reproduce and get back the population on track.’

How much ever apocryphal this story seems, this is exactly what a character named Mr. Kapasi says to an NRI family who come heritage-hunting in that boring book — Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

An edited version of this article can be found here.

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