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Typical Chennai Question

Why the city is a quiz capital

Hundreds of students in uniforms shuffle and shift in their seats. Grouped into teams of three — with cheeky names like “Idli,Vadai,Sambar” and “The Three Mistakes Our School Made” — they have just turned in their answers to the preliminary round of the Murugappa Madras Quotient Quiz 2013. With a half hour to kill,they now exchange notes and break into nervous titters belying their confidence. “Winning the big quizzes is more important to some of us than scoring in our annual exams,but my parents and teachers won’t like me to say this,” says a 15-year-old from DAV School who is savvy enough to request anonymity. “I read four newspapers every day and at least three books a week,cover to cover,” he says. “I also spend two hours on the internet researching things of interest to me — world history and religion,for now.” Welcome to the world of the quiz enthusiast. The young man,with his wire-frame glasses and spiky hair,is one of thousands in Chennai who spend hours each day poring over esoteric trivia — “Did you know the anaconda gets its name from the Tamil phrase for ‘elephant killer’?”— to prepare for the best quizzes hosted in the city year after year.

Chennai,which has,for decades,nourished this intellectual pursuit,is the capital of student quizzes and “open” quizzes in India. The year is punctuated by about a dozen big quizzing events,all of which witness packed houses. Attending one of them is like opening a cabinet of curiosities to discover extraordinary things. Dr Navin Jayakumar says he enjoys evoking this sense of wonder in his audience. One of the city’s foremost quiz masters,he conducts the finals of the Landmark Quiz — arguably the most-awaited national open quiz — in Chennai on Independence Day every year. It takes him 60 hours to prepare questions and slides for the event,he says. An eye surgeon,he even devotes the time between seeing patients to his quizzes. Because in a city where audiences readily label styles of quizzing — a question based on a news piece,say about the death of a public personality,is called a “typical Chennai question”,or simply,TCQ — any quiz is a tightrope walk. “One must strike a balance between what is called a janta kind of quiz with popular questions and a difficult quiz that will only appeal to hardcore quizzers,” he says.

Jayakumar is respected in Chennai for his original and entertaining quizzes,always peppered liberally with audio-visuals,as for his pedigree. Jayakumar’s mother,Saranya,an ardent quizzer since the 1970s,is responsible for establishing the tradition of quizzing in Chennai. Now,at the Madras Quotient Quiz,as her son takes the stage,the students go silent,ready for the moment of truth. Of the 242 teams gathered here — a record for the quiz,which is in its third edition — in the auditorium of a school on Harrington Road,only six make the cut,having worked their way through carefully-crafted questions about their city. The habitués among them bravely field the lofty questions lobbed at them; they hazard false conjectures and celebrate lucky guesses. They tackle diverse subjects like decathletes in their prime.

Despite the nimbus of eminence surrounding quizzing,there is little correlation between academics and quizzing,says R Pranav,a student of engineering and a quiz enthusiast. One Sunday,last year,Pranav and his friends walked into a meeting of the Chennai members of the Quiz Foundation of India and found themselves rooted to the spot. On alternate weekends,the group — there are about 45-50 active members,many of them old-timers — meets at PS Senior Secondary School in Mylapore,where a projector is set up and a quiz is conducted by one of them for the rest.

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“The internet has levelled the field for quizzers,” says Suresh Ramasubramaniam,an engineer with IBM who is quiz master today. “In the old days,if you had a British Council Library membership and a Newsweek subscription,you had an edge over the others.” His questions touch upon the ordinary and the arcane: from ancient Sanskrit texts to Estee Lauder and Swami Virato. “A good quiz is where 40-45 per cent of your questions get answered,” he says. “Ideally,the audience should be familiar with the answer even if not with the question.” In Chennai,quizzing is familiar territory,even if the faces are new.

by V Shoba

First published on: 22-09-2013 at 05:36:04 am
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