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Saturday, December 06, 2008

In light of the recent terrorist attacks on Mumbai, I decided to post something sombre and analytical about such weighty matters as foreign policy, Islamofascism, federalism and representative democracy. Shortly after, I changed my mind and decided to do some navel-gazing and talk about quizzing instead.

I was an avid quizzer right through primary and middle school, regularly making it to the inter-house teams, but, largely due to chronic shyness, I never stepped forward to try out for the school team until 1994, when I was in Class 8. After performing unexpectedly well at tryouts, the teacher in charge sent me to an inter-school quiz as part of the B-team. My teammates on the school B-team were Dhiraj and Mihir, both of whom were trying to make the A-team at the time. The A-team consisted of experienced quizzers Riddhi, Amit and Ryan.

We all qualified for the semi-finals, but for some reason were drawn in the same one. As we waited to be called on stage, I hung out with Dhiraj and Ryan, both of whom were a year junior to me, but were much more experienced. As we waited, Ryan sang verses of Meatloaf songs, complete with the verses that were excised from the version that appeared on MTV India. When the A-Team went on stage, they did so with the easy walk of champions. They knew everyone and even made conversation with the girls - something that I would be unable to do for another 5 years. At that time, I was merely afraid that everyone was looking at me, and yet hoping that they were.

The quizmaster - a man who would later become my first employer - took the stage, and the quiz began. To everyone's surprise, we shot into an early lead, as I answered the first 5 questions of the quiz. This was particularly surprising because no one knew who I was, and in the hallowed world of school quizzes - you have to have been around for a few years before you get to win quizzes on your own steam. At the time, though, I didn't care. I was on a roll, and it was awesome. I insisted on taking first crack at every question, even though Mihir was the senior member. He didn't mind much then, though.

At the midway point, we had a comfortable lead, with the A-team quite far down the list. During the break, they came over and congratulated us. We wished each other luck for the second half, and then took our seats again.

For the second half, the direction was reversed, and suddenly our questions dried up - almost all of them being snapped up by Antara and her team. Also, a fist-pumping rearguard action by the A-team propelled them to within biting distance of us.

Our last direct question was a visual clue. Answering it correctly would have meant that we were through. We saw a photograph of an Argentine footballer with long hair. Confidently I identified him as Claudio Caniggia. Mihir thought it was Gabriel Batistuta, but at that point I refused to accept that I could be wrong and blurted out what I thought was the answer. Of course, it was wrong. The next team picked it up - it was, in fact, Batistuta. A couple of questions later, the regular rounds were over, and we had a 3-way tie for first place between Antara's team, the A-team and us, and only 2 would qualify for the final.

You can guess what happened next. We flubbed the tie-breaker question, and experience won the day. I missed the opportunity to reach the final four (and maybe even win) the first quiz I represented the school at. At the time, it was quite devastating. So much so, that I turned down the offer of a lift and decided to walk home. I was quite sure no one would have noticed anyway, and truthfully I wasn't yet able to take such things in my stride.

That was probably the most story of my first quiz. It is certainly the most self-indulgent post on this blog. But there is more.

Though I wasn't there, the rest of the quizzers met the teachers in charge, and reported that the new guy was actually quite good. Dhiraj and I were drafted into the A-team for the Limca Quiz, which we won beating out Sagnik and friends, and thus began a new chapter in my life. Quizzing gave me the visibility that helped me overcome my diffidence, and right now, it is the one thing that I still miss from Calcutta.

Mihir never let me forget Caniggia. Even when I met him years later at IIT Kharagpur, where he was studying at the time. Over time, I lost touch with them all completely, one by one, with the exception of Antara, who is getting married in a few days. I bumped into Riddhi many times during my college days, but the I met Ryan only a couple of times after leaving school.

The last time I met him, he was getting ready to run an obscene distance around the school field. He had decided that his dream job was in the armed forces, and he was appearing for the entrance examination for the NDA later that year. His academic record was good enough, and we knew he was smart enough to breeze through the interview, but he was afraid his weak eyesight might be counted against him, so he was making sure that he came out on top in the physical trials.

I heard later that he did make it to the NDA. Then like all the others, his name became yet another in a long list of people I once knew. A name to be mentioned once a year, when meeting up for coffee with school friends. Perhaps someone would start a story with - "Hey did you hear what happened to...?". Usually, the person in question would have ended up in jail, or something similarly sinister. Our school has a history of producing some pretty unsavoury characters.

A few days ago, I did find out what happened to Ryan. I was directed to this report. After a harrowing siege, a few heroes were revealed. One of them was Captain Ryan Chakravorty, NSG commando. A man who lived his dream, and in the process, gave a nation a measure of succour.

When I saw this, my mind flashed back to a day, 14 years ago. On hindsight, I realise that the better man won that day.