Sunday, June 29, 2008

Quiizing in JU

I wrote this article a couple of years ago for a Washington webzine run by JU alums and though it might amuse a few old-timeres. Or not. Whatever.

I joined JU as an undergraduate student exactly 20 years ago, in 1986. By then, I was already a seasoned quizzard, having first cut my teeth in the Chuchura-Chandannagar circuit and then as a member of the St Lawrence school team during the Higher Secondary years. As a school team we did not fare very well in the festival circuit but all that was to change dramatically at university.

One of the first quizzing events I remember from university was the freshers’ quiz, organized by the Arts Faculty Students’ Union. I teamed up with Saurav Sen from the history department and we won with ridiculous ease. Saurav Sen was then easily the most formidable database of recondite information on both sides of the jheel. At IIT Kharagpur’s Spring Fest the following year, he reduced keen engineers to tears by describing the workings of the Wankel Rotary Engine in merciless detail, and by his perorations on the push-pull amplifier.

Like India and Pakistan at cricket, there were then two great quizzing nations in the university, the Arts-Science and the Engineering. While Arts-Science were dominated by English, Economics and Mathematics, Engineering drew its strength from Electrical, Electronics and Mechanical. In those early years of jheel-side rivalry, the Arts-Science faction would pour scorn on the engineers for being of the ‘rock handbook’ school of quizzing—implying that their of knowledge of western music was derived not from hours of dedicated listening but from handbooks and encyclopedia. The engineers did not take this lying down and jeered the Arts-Science camp for knowing next to nothing about sports. In the fullness of time, these rivalries would be forgotten as friendships flourished across the great divide and the two camps united in the common goal of preventing the SFI from taking over the Debating Society and Quiz Forum (DSQF).

The DSQF—then as now—was the official face of quizzing in the campus. Quizzing comprised 100 % and debating approximately 0 % of its activities. Arup Ghosh (currently head honcho at ITC) of the English department ran it like a mafia boss, and we merrily stringed along. One of its yearly events was the Ranajoy Karlekar Memorial Inter-Departmental Quiz, usually held on the basketball court. There was a shield for the event, though no one now knows where it is. (For those of a post-Eighties vintage, Ranajoy Karlekar of the English department was one of the most legendary teachers of his generation and died prematurely in 1985).

But the most intense rivalry was reserved for the college festival quizzes, where there were cash prizes to be won. I still remember winning the princely sum of Rs 151 at one such quiz and the subsequent immortal comment made by teammate Vinay Rao (Math): ‘Ah, a square meal at last’. The math team was probably the strongest in the university, with Vinay being partnered by basketball-team captain Joy Bhattacharya and ancient mariner Debkumar Mitra, aka Debuda. Joy and Debu-da were probably the first quizzards ever to make a career in quizzing post-university—Joy, particularly, during his ESPN years. Debuda on the other hand was widely rumoured to have being around since the Flood and we would probably not have been surprised if the university vice-chancellor also chose to call him Debuda.

But I digress. College quizzes soon became as predictable as Left Front victories in West Bengal, as JU swept first, second and third places in most of them. Alarmed, fest organizers said that they would allow only two teams from JU to participate. Armageddon ensued: which were the two best teams in the university? To ascertain this, a dark and barbaric ritual known as ‘seeding quiz’ [more popularly known as bi(n)chi quiz] was instituted. Every Friday, the tribe would gather at the now-demolished Gandhi Bhaban (yes, you read right, GB has been torn down to make way for a modern auditorium) and one of the competing teams would act as the quizmasters. A complicated percentile system was devised to keep scores which no one other than the mathematicians understood. Quizzes went on for 10, 20, 30 rounds and till late evening, with an audience of one scorer, one timekeeper and somebody’s bored girlfriend (quizzing was then, alas, a ruthlessly male bastion). Some of the most difficult questions in the history of humankind were asked at these quizzes, as teams sought to undo each other in esoterica.

The seeding quizzes also saw the birth of two of the brightest stars of the Engineering faculty, Aniruddha Bhattacharya and Amitava Banerjee (currently a colleague in the Electronics department). Their knowledge of Hindi film funda—and particularly film music—was frightening: I still believe that there is nothing that they did not know about the Bombay film industry. But as far as star billing went, it was Arani Sinha of Electrical who shone the brightest (Arani, if you are reading this, please forgive me once more). He was the most talismanic of engineering quizzards, taking slow boats to Shibpur if necessary to reach a quiz on time. Along with his trusty comrade Kalidas Ghosh of Mechanical (currently a hotshot banker with Citibank), Arani went forth to give battle wherever there was a whiff of quizzing in the air. Such mundane matters as floods, insurrections and fall of governments completely failed to deter his quest for the final answer to the life, the universe and everything.

It was not inappropriate, therefore, that the only novel ever to be begun on quizzing was called Arani Quizzed. Four chapters of this incomplete novel were co-written by yours truly and Rimi Chatterjee (novelist, English teacher at JU) in the summer of 1990. The first chapter was ‘published’ (photocopied and sold to quizzards) on the first day of AGON, the fest of Calcutta National Medical College. Three more chapters were inflicted upon an unsuspecting world before Arani got wise to what was happening (he had by then shifted to ISI) and threatened the authors with dire consequences if they did not stop writing novels about him. For those interested, the first chapter may be found at

Roundabout this time, quizzards made common cause to prevent the SFI from taking over the DSQF, which was about the only club in the campus it did not control. This was attempted by the very simple expedient of enrolling a large number of students (who were innocent of any quiz-ly act in all their lives) and voting a new committee in. One morning at nine, we (Kalidas Ghosh, Rajsekhar Mitra and I) met the vice-chancellor and requested him to intervene. This he did and the crisis was averted for the nonce. However, there was nothing we could do when similar tactics were employed by the SFI the following year. In fairness, it must also be said that we ran DSQF like a para club and did little to increase membership rolls.

By 1991, most of the students of my generation were on their way out and a brave new breed set their sights on the open quizzing circuit. Names like Rathindra Basu (Electrical) and Jaideep Mukherjee (International Relations) began to do the rounds; happily, a number of women quizzards from the English Department began to challenge the male hegemony. The early 90s also saw a brief period of what can only be described as militant trade unionism on part of university quizzards. There were repeated boycotts of festival quizzes to protest organizational high-handedness, or incompetent quizmasters. Parallel quizzes would be held at the festival venue at very short notice, and the actual event would have to be cancelled by the organizers. The first of these ‘rebel’ quizzes were held at Xavotsab, followed by Dental College, Presidency College and JU itself—in the latter case to protest the quiz mastership of Krishnendu Banik at the Arts Sanskriti.

Twenty years on, the DSQF still exists and a new bunch of enthusiasts—mercifully unmolested by any political outfit—runs the club from the first floor of the Amenities Centre. I do not know whether they write novels about themselves or hatch plans of world domination in their little room. But sometimes, when I walk across the campus at dusk, with the sun setting over Bengal Lamp, I can see a light burning on the first floor of the AC Canteen. And I like to imagine that they are engaged in some completely useless research about the name of Attila the Hun’s pet dog or Bill Clinton’s brand of cigar, a comforting thought in a world which has little time for the irrelevant, the unproductive and the downright silly.