If you ever were a small-town Indian boy in the 10-15 age group, you would hardly have passed a day without answering one of these three questions:
a. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
This is a trick question, but if the boy is really smart he’ll know exactly what answer will earn the questioner’s approval. Apparently, I wasn’t that smart, with the result that my father virtually disowned me when I said I wanted to be in ‘saahitya‘ when I grew up, in front of several of his colleagues. That Goswami da’s son doesn’t want to take the Joint Entrance went down in the annals of my small native town as the worst perversion since Woody Allen slept with Mia Farrow’s daughter.
b. “Who is your favourite cricketer?”
The only question in the list that is easy on the boy’s head. Growing up in the 90s, you could take any name as long as it was Sachin Tendulkar.
c. “What is your favourite subject?”
The suburban Indian boy’s life revolves around cricket and science. Anyone who answered questions 1 and 2 to the satisfaction of his auditors would likely get this one too, though if the answer is something like “molecular astrobiology” or “geomathematical chemistry” rather than just “science”, the boy would doubtless score some brownie points. Never underestimate the Indian adolescent male, he learns about structural engineering before he can spell ‘cleavage’.
Anyway, I guess answering questions is a way of life for every middle-class Indian boy living in a non-metropolis. None of these questions seeks to draw out an opinion though. Whether at home, in school or in one of the hundred private tuitions that he attends every week to catch up with the big city guys, questions are always a bit like catechism, and there’s nothing in them for the faculty of imagination. No wonder then that when he turns 18, steps out of home for the first time into an opinionated metropolis and someone suddenly asks him about his views on the Reservation policy, he can only invoke the Indian Railways in his reply. “My family’s policy is to go for reservation exactly three months ahead of the journey. And we always try to get at least one upper berth.” Good policy that, if you ask me.
When kids in the Delhis and Bombays of the world fantasise about Manchester United or Madonna, their Durgapur and Bhilai counterparts ejaculate at the thought of getting some known questions in the exam. When I was growing up, nearly all my classmates joined a tuition class run by our maths teacher who would routinely leak out questions before tests. In the process, he single-handedly killed the student-oriented porn industry in my town.
The next person in the ‘Big People I Know’ series earns his place in the list because he managed to rescue questions from this uninspiring, corrupt state to something glorious for a whole generation. He achieved this with a microphone in hand and friendliness in his voice.
I have always suspected that I share a transcendental relationship with the O’ Briens of Kolkata. In retrospect, the two most prominent markers of my boyhood were my CISCE education and my obsession with quizzing. But for the Anglo Indian patriarchs who founded CISCE, my only experience with English in the young-adult world would have been via telegram writing (for the clueless, go check out the CBSE English syllabus; ‘fatuous’ does not even begin to describe it). And but for quizzes, I would never have bothered to find out why polar bears don’t eat penguins. The O’ Briens – father Neil as the CISCE head priest and son Derek as the archbishop of Quizzology in the country – were thus the two lighthouses of my life, and it was just a karmic accident that I was born in a racially superior family. (Heart of my heart, I have always been bit of an anglophile.) That I was born a Bengali of all things only deepened this sense of connection, Bengal being home to more CISCE schools and quizzers than revolutionaries and fishermen.
Derek O’ Brien, quite simply, was my first role model. As a boy, I struggled to relate to Sachin. There was just something so immoralistic about a 15-year old hammering frightening Pakistanis twice the age and height that I could never look up to him and say “There’s the future me!” Derek was different. He merely asked interesting questions, and those who did not know the answers could rest assured that the man would not judge them based on their failure. Despite his towering presence on the stage, he never sought to write off the role played by destiny in success and failure, making him ‘oh-so-human!’ and extremely lovable. Even the dumbest kids on the block were for him a “very good team just having a bad day” (a posture that Harsha Bhogle used to his credit many years later in the ESPN Sports Quiz). You may argue that this is just shallow reality-TV gimmick, but what it does to the morale of a thoroughly intimidated smalltown bloke is better experienced than described. Add to this the ability to prick the interest of deeply materialistic and impatient ten-year olds on matters as obscure as Djibouti and the sewing machine, and there’s my hero for you. It’s a pity there is no visual record of the two occasions when the man quizzed me, but I can invoke a much more credible memory to illustrate what I mean.
We did not have cable at home till I passed my Xth, and I think the only reason my parents might have felt guilty about it was that this forced me to go to a neighbour’s house to watch the Bournvita Quiz Contest on Sunday morning. (Their son was developing quite a reputation as a quizzer, and they could not even give him the basic infrastructure.) Not that I cared much about TV otherwise, and watching Derek interrogating kids my age in shining blazers in someone else’s home was almost a religious experience for me, rendered that much more sacred by the hardhsip attached with it. And that voice. Like Moses’, that voice was meant to lead people to discoveries as a humble Man of God. Every time a team got a sitter or a really tough one as its direct question, Derek would say ‘luck of the draw!‘ with such disarming honesty and genuine surprise in his voice that the distance between the quizmaster and the participants would instantly dissolve away, reassuring one that there is no artifice or one-upmanship involved whatsoever. Compare this with Siddharth Basu’s sombre high-handed style, and you realise how much the personality of the anchor can shape the experience of a quiz. While Derek was a non-playing participant in a game, every bit as excited as those actually competing, Basu came across as a a dispassionate God who presumed complete ignorance at the other end, and even when someone did manage to get an answer, it was almost because he allowed them to. Some would attribute this difference in treatment to the different age groups they handled, but Derek has also quizzed people with Dalal Street and not Disney on their minds, and that has not forced him to abandon his childlike joy at revealing what the next Q-card holds.
There was one more reason I loved the show – barring news on Doordarshan, it was the only English programme I understood from the accent PoV. My few attempts at watching Star Movies at an uncle’s place had convinced me that there was something wrong with the television set and nothing wrong with my cognitive abilities. The women looked hot all right (I was not among those who could not spell ‘cleavage’), so there.
After that long eulogy, let me come to ‘The Definitive Derek O’ Brien Moment’ of my life. The moment was all too fleeting and farfaraway, but it feels so real that sometimes when I think of it, I am taken aback by the thick outgrowth on my chin. Nestle had started the Maggi Quiz as a neighbourhood imitation of the incredibly popular BQC, and our team found itself in the finals of the Durgapur edition. The event was in itself a brilliant evangelical gesture, helping hundreds of dreamy kids live their dream, and the fact that ‘THE’ Derek was going to quiz the finalists meant more to me than actually answering any questions. This was for all practical purposes my first close sighting of a celebrity, and by the time he came up on stage to give out the prelim answers, I was so starstruck that I did not even hear him calling us on stage as one of the finalists. I was about a foot tall at that time, and the steps to that stage were about the highest I had climbed thus far, but Derek insisted on treating all of us – including me – as grown ups on a mission. We shook hands, he asked us about our areas of strength and whether we liked eating Maggi and wished us luck for the next hour. By the time I settled down in my place in the Akbar Road Girls’ High School auditorium, I was no longer conscious that I was a midget among normal kids. This, dear readers, was also a first, perhaps a more mollifying one for my ego, which had grown used to being part of a body that was always the first one in the assembly queue, class after class.
I would be lying if I said I remember everything that happened in the next three or four or five rounds, so let me jump cut to the part that I do remember. The winner had already been decided, and we were tied for second spot with another school – an arch rival – with one last question to go. PVM (my school) vs St Xavier’s never needed Derek O’ Brien to be explosive – ask my brother who nearly got killed after a soccer game – but it became an unprecedented prestige fight with him involved. It was going to be a free floating question, and the two seniors in my team were fighting for control over the buzzer. One of them was almost barred from competing because he looked way too old to be in VIth, which was the cutoff age. My mother – who always accompanied me for quizzes – was sitting somewhere in the middle of the packed auditorium and looked all set to scoop down on them like a protective parent eagle (she is 4″5′, just the right size for the simile), when the question arrived:
“What is the difference between the functioning of the third umpire in the India-SA series (the series that gave birth to the system) and the Australia-England series (both 1992 series, I think)?”
“The one is doing it by lighting lamps and other is talking to the ground umpire Sir on walkie talkie…”
I was confident that I had given the right answer and in the best English possible (the best that I knew anyway). The first assumption turned out to be correct, and when Derek broke the five-second silence with a thunderous “Little Master, I salute you!“, the second assumption was rendered miraculously irrelevant. I was halfway between running away to escape the over-affectionate embraces of my teammates and crying out loud, when he did the unthinkable: he swooped down and picked me up, and the next thing I knew was that I was in his lap, and the crowd went hysterical. The eagle had come to my rescue after all, just not the one I expected. Yes dearies, imagine the man behind Wordly Ties, now the proud owner of a five-feet-and-a-quarter frame, right in Derek O’ Brien’s bosom!
Derek O’ Brien. The deity I invoked the night before the Quiz Club at St Stephen’s was to announce its inductee list. The face I recalled with closed eyes before every tight buzzer round. My guardian angel when it came to answering so many of life’s questions, years after quizzing became a lost-world ritual for me.
Recently, Derek joined the ever-embattled Mamata Banerjee in her fight against the communists. I also spotted him extending his rather pointless presence as a judge in a boring musical reality show on ETV Bangla. The man is clearly asking a few questions of himself now, and I’d say it’s a right well earned. No matter how he fares, I will never judge Derek O’ Brien in his new roles. No question about it.
PS: If you are still wondering why polar bears do not eat penguins, consider the two opposite poles they inhabit.