Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Begging the question

Online profiles are revealing. In their omissions. For some unfathomable reason, I don’t see young people proclaiming on Facebook that they are quizzers. Amateur film-makers, yes. Adventure bikers. Music connoisseurs. Even tattoo artists. But quizzers? No. Why so? Could it be because the common image of a quizzer is of an adolescent male with bottle-bottom glasses and body odour , and perhaps a cranium enlarged like Amitabh Bachchan’s character in “Paa”? A strange species who only emerge from their subterranean burrows in the dark of the moon, to gibber about “directs” and “connects” and “infinite bounce”? This, of course, is totally untrue. The average quizzer is actually a veritable Adonis, with long wavy blonde hair, rippling muscles and the suave charm of Remington Steele to go with his omniscience. (And the moon is made of green cheese.)

For a long while I was a little ashamed that I enjoyed quizzing. It seemed a little juvenile. Grown men (and a few women) sitting in a circle to show off how much they know. Like the obnoxious brats in the first row who squeal “Miss! Miss!” and raise their hands when a question is asked in class. But I could not forego the guilty pleasure. Dammit, quizzing is fun! Especially when the quiz is run by somebody who can keep it interesting. Which made me think. Obviously there are good quizzes and bad quizzes. What’s the difference, then?

Quizzing at its worst deserves the term it’s known by in the western world – Trivial Pursuit. This includes the kind of question that fills tupenny “quiz books” churned out for the delectation of fond parents who want to mentor their little prodigies. What is the currency of Vietnam? What is the capital of Upper Volta? Who appeared in the 23rd episode of “Coronation Street”? In other words, disparate nuggets of information that have little relevance to one’s knowledge of a subject, trivia that is (sadly) often swotted up and regurgitated without any interest other than scoring points.

It gets better (in my humble opinion) when it throws up facts that pique one’s interest and make one want to know more about a particular subject. In other words, it can lead to bridging the gap between information and knowledge. For example - Mīrzā Mohammad Tāregh bin Shāhrokh compiled the Zij-i-Sultani, the greatest star catalogue between the times of Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe. By what name is he better known? This was Ulugh Beg, grandson of Timur, ruler of Samarkand, astronomer and mathematician, whose bones were placed in Timur’s tomb by their descendant Babur. Now that is a slice of knowledge, a smorgasbjord of facts that entice one to read up more about the history of Central Asia, a region totally neglected by our Anglo-centric view of history. A good quiz question introduces one to a fascinating cast of characters or a new knowledge-scape. It is not just informative, it is interesting. It is to Trivial Pursuit as Madame de Stael’s salon was to housewives’ gossip.

The best kind of quiz question, however, is a kind of brain-sport. It is the question that gives all the clues and leaves the quizzer to work them out. It makes the quizzer rummage through the recesses of his memory and put things together to arrive at an epiphany. And this often requires teamwork, a pooling of thoughts and deductions that justifies the formation of a quiz team. One example that I recall with particular relish was a question about the iMation logo – a wand tracing an arc of dots that turn to stars. Apparently it’s inspired by a quote from a famous science-fiction author. One of us latched on to the wand and stars and said there must be a reference to magic. Another said that all wise things in science fiction can be traced to Arthur C. Clarke. Then we decided that, given the company (iMation), it must be something about technology. All this in the space of about ten seconds. Then the fourth member of the team, who had been vigorously rubbing his chin, put it all together with the actual quote from Clarke – “Technology is progressing so fast that it will soon be indistinguishable from magic.”

A most satisfying moment. That is the kind of joint deduction that renews my interest in quizzing. And my faith in Calcutta, where this pursuit is still valued for its own sake without regard for the rewards. Just the satisfaction of knowing one got it right.

There are other nuances to a good quiz that can only be understood from the other side, when one has to set and run a quiz. It’s all too tempting for me to set a series of questions on Kishore Kumar or the Great Game or Clint Eastwood, to indulge my personal interests. This is not fair to the quizzers. The questions must cover as wide a range as possible, while at the same time maintaining an even standard of difficulty. The quizmaster’s primary aim must not be to stump the teams and the audience. Quizzes are enjoyable when questions can be answered, they are not meant to showcase one person’s abstruse knowledge. Above all, like any good show, a quiz has to hold the interest. But for that, it should know when to stop.

And since I am reminded of brevity, here endeth the first lesson.

P.S. For all those who're asking whether I'm doing a quiz at the DI on the 3rd of October, the answer is "NO". It's been postponed indefinitely. You'll know when I know.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Separated at birth

The Bengal Post is keeping this blog alive. But hopefully there will soon be some travel notes here - the sidewalks of Vienna, the Schonbrunn Castle, the lights of the castle on Buda hill and wild boar in a Magyar cellar.
Meanwhile, this Monday's effusion -

There were two people in line ahead of me. One was a crotchety old lady who needed attention and was going to some lengths to get it. As he took her order, his eyes met mine over her shoulder and I noted a flicker. Not of recognition, but perhaps realization? Two brown-skinned men, sizing each other up in an off-campus diner on Long Island, half way across the world from their homes. When I reached the counter, though, he was perfectly professional. “What can I get you, sir?”
It was I who broke the ice, venturing a few words in Hindi. “You seem to be from my part of the world” – the word I used was mulq, region, province. The smile came out then, a little hesitant, a little wary. A nod in affirmation, a few words in that accented Hindi that brought back afternoons on South Campus and back-slapping uproarious evenings in Nehru Place. I crashed on – “You must be from Punjab!” That nod again, and a smile I didn’t quite understand.

He ushered me to a table, excused himself, busied himself behind the counter. When he brought me my coffee, it was accompanied by doughnuts, cake, cookies, a tray heaped with sweet-smelling hospitality. “Aap khaao jee, ae mhaarey tarf se hai”. Afterwards, he refused to accept payment even for the coffee I’d ordered. “This is the first time you’ve come here, you are my mehmaan. Mhaarey mulq ke ho jee.” The unspoken statement of fraternity, of a common tradition in a foreign land. Heart-warming.

Except that he wasn’t from Punjab. At least not the Punjab I had in mind. “I’m from the other Punjab, bhai-saab. Kehnde hain beech mein kuchh baarder hai – what do you think?” How could I respond except with a smile and a shrug? We didn’t discuss it further. No ruminations on history, enmity, politics, lost families and homesteads. Just a smile on one side and a shrug on the other, the helplessness of 2000 years of common history cast aside by the next 60 years.

That encounter came to mind this week as I watched a most improbable script unfold. Take one Indian sportsman and one Pakistani, both a little past their sell-by date. Mix well, pour into one of the four biggest events in their sport. Not any one of the four, either. One in the US, where the government has an exclusive strategy team for this region. Serve garnished with the following – item#1 , a scandal about gambling and cricket that taints one side of the border; item #2, a scandal about doping that wipes out several medal prospects on the Indian side; #3, confusion about the biggest sporting extravaganza to be scheduled in India in several years. Wait, there’s more. Serve with the most perfect timing – a final match that coincides with both Ganesh Chaturthi and Eid. If poor Manmohan Desai had come up with such a series of coincidences, the scoffing classes would have torn him to shreds.
The script went a little pear-shaped at the end, of course. Bopanna and Qureishi lost in the finals. No matter. They scored one and a half billion points with their smiles photographed together off-court. In fact, the conspiracy theorists had already started muttering about a fix, with everybody from B. Husein Obama to the line judges and Marcos Baghdatis involved in some incomprehensible realpolitik to rival Robert Ludlum’s most convoluted plots. No matter. For a week, two countries looked on and smiled a little sheepishly as the rest of the world asked what the fuss was about, all these years. And the Internet bulged at the seams with a fantasy every cricket fan has indulged over the last 40 years – could anybody have beaten a team that had both Sachin Tendulkar and Wasim Akram, where Javed Miandad and Kapil Dev were comrades and not adversaries?

This same week witnessed a rare partnership in the world of music – Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh performing together, an evening where the sheer presence of the two stars overshadowed their actual performance. Elsewhere, whether in collaborations or on the personal level, whether in the public domain or from my own experience, I seem to recall only good things happening when people from both sides of the border get together one to one. A new friend from Lahore, dapper in Hugo Boss and sharp as a knife, dismissed all politics with a wave of the hand and invited me to a weekend at his cottage in Murree. “We’ll play squash and drink beer, no government can object to those activities!” A millionaire’s offer that in its own way echoed the hospitality of my friend in the Dunkin’ Donuts on Long Island.
In Bollywood, alas, the story is not so good. There was Meera earlier, there was Mohsin Khan long before her, and now one reads of Veena Malik. Is it only in in the film industry that Indo-Pak partnerships have not really worked out. Everywhere else, we seem quite hunky-dory. If one leaves out, of course, the minor issue of international relations!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Staying alive

(Reading this, I realise I am most 'mazingly propah when I write for the print media)

At my age, senile dementia is not a joke. Nor is Alzheimer’s. Or Parkinson’s Disease. Every once in a while a name or a term slips away from me in the course of a conversation, like a dog scurrying under the bed at the mention of a bath. I can see the tip of its tail but I can’t call it out. Because I’ve forgotten its name, of course. And I worry. Is this a sign of decay? Then – like most married men – I am reassured by The Wife. Who gives me in rapid succession a pitying look, the word I’m searching for and an admonition to talk less. I do take some precautions to avoid Alzheimer’s. I work my way through a few cigarillos a day. All in the interests of better mental health, because I read somewhere that smokers are immune to Alzheimer’s. Or wait – was it Parkinson’s that they mentioned? There you go, I’ve forgotten again.

I wonder – how does one stay mentally young? Not everyone can follow the advice and example of Mr. Hugh Hefner, so what are the options? Solving crosswords? Learning salsa? Eating arugula? None of them as much fun as the Hefner Highway, but easy to try. What else? Listening to hip-hop? I’ll pass on that one. I can think of few things more ridiculous than a middle-aged man wearing his trousers round his knees and bobbing up and down while jerking his hands strangely. Dementia would be by far the easier option!

I do have a viable option for mental zing - the company of the young. About 6 years ago I discovered blogs, and through them a community of (mostly) young people who were bright, articulate, interesting. They surprised me. They shook me up. And they reassured me. They do listen to music I find strange, with even stranger names. (I mean, Arctic Monkeys?) But back in the day, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd must have been equally incomprehensible. And these young people listen to Procol Harum as readily as to Lokkhichara. They emote over Robindro Shongeet as much as they follow China Mieville. Their tastes are eclectic, their minds elastic. When I find myself mentally retreating from the things they introduce me to, I think back to my teens. To the way my father and his father freely dispensed their opinions of the books I read, the clothes I wore, the music I listened to and the company I kept. I remember my resentment then. And I resolve to be less judgemental now, more open-minded. (Though it will be a long time before I listen to Lady Gaga by choice!)

I must confess I derive tangible benefits from the company of the young. Updates on the latest gizmos. The low-down on the international literary scene. Quirky software that speeds up my phone, or helps me edit sound-tracks. Knowledge of the by-lanes and flesh-pots of my own city, and of places surprisingly far and wide. And very often, the help of kind young limbs to reach out, walk over, lift and shift. What’s more, they help me put myself in perspective. From my reactions to them, I can better understand my parents’ generation; from their tolerance of me, I learn to be patient myself.

These youngsters shake me out of my cynicism too. They’re willing to give. Not money, but time. Which, if you think it over, is in the truest sense giving of oneself. They believe. In causes, in people. And in the future. After all these years of seeing the seamier side of life, it’s refreshing to see these young people forego their own pleasures. To teach poor children, to clean public spaces, to help with their own blood. I admire their energy, their selflessness. And I am humbled.

I won’t for a moment suggest that the young are angels without exception. Good grief, no! Some of them are beyond redemption. I’m not referring here just to call-centre love intrigues that lead to murder. Or the kidnapping of friends for ransom. Or the random violence whereby a game of cricket leads to a 14-yr-old being maimed for life. The young commit worse transgressions on a regular basis. They use textese even outside SMS. They think “American Pie” is a Madonna number. The girls shave their heads, the boys wear their hair long. They insert strange metallic objects into parts of themselves, at least those parts not yet covered by strange tattooes. They’re different. Of course, being different is not in itself a crime ( I think). But wait. Tattooes, body piercing, long hair, drugs? Why is it that the first mental picture is of a “Naga sanyasi”? The brand ambassador of Gen-Next?

Nor am I suggesting that senior citizens (a term used by the young, I believe, to refer to any person over the age of 25) are devoid of value. We oldies get a lot done too. I’m proud to have contemporaries who still have mental flexibility, tolerance, energy and compassion. These qualities are not the prerogative of youth. Or perhaps they are. Perhaps youth is defined not by a figure but the very possession of these qualities. And the country of old men exists only in the mind.