Monday, January 14, 2008

confessions for the new year - the fake quiz

I write this a few days before I return to Delhi for a few days. It’s a confession a few months too late. It’s about a quiz that just before my leaving Delhi in end-August, K and Gogo and I jointly conducted at a small auditorium at IIT Delhi. This was courtesy the Kutub Quizzers, and some of the details of the quiz and its questions can be found on their blog. For all of you who enthusiastically participated in the quiz, (and even for all of you who don’t give a shit about the nerdy sub-culture that is the Delhi quizzing scene), here’s the confession – every single question in the quiz was a fake, a tall tale, a doozy. Yes, every single one. All the ninety odd of them in the prelims and finals.

Well, some of you might have figured that out already (the quiz was called 'Pornobgraphy'. Some of you have already been told. But in the shocked silence I imagine among the rest, however brief, let me intervene (before you start gathering the lynch mob, Bhatta) and try and tell you why we did it.

Honestly, I don’t quite know. It started as an idea after an impressive drinking spree. One of those when you wake up the morning and start drinking again, and continue into lunch. Over lunch, suddenly -

- Let’s do a quiz before you leave Delhi.

- Cool.

- Let’s do a Pornob tribute round and see if anyone notices.

- Why not?

(For those who don’t know about Parnab/Porno da, further reading is suggested. For those who don’t care enough to do that, a brief summary – Parnab Mukherjee is widely reputed to have a far more flexible and relativistic relation to what are generally called ‘facts’ – far more so even than the election manifestos of India’s major political parties. This is a bit of a problem because he is/was one of delhi’s most popular/notorious quiz masters, a profession which (supposedly) derives its legitimacy primarily from the mastery of facts, and nothing much else. [Though it could be argued that in the case of Derek O’Brien it comes from his collection of designer kurtas]. Parnab, of course, brings his flexible relationship to fact to his own biography/CV, and audacious barefaced lying in front of audiences full of impressionable young adults… you can tell I adore and idolize the man, can’t you?)

So while drinking and eating, over terrible kababs, we make a few ‘Pornob’ special questions. And nearly die laughing in the process. Our ‘facts’ were so much cooler than reality (whatever that is after eighteen hours of drinking). The idea doesn’t take too long to form. A whole ‘Pornob’ quiz? Why not?

The idea survives into sobriety. There’s three weeks to go before I leave Delhi. Calls are made. The venue is booked. The participants are enthused. No one (except us and a very few non quizzers, and the man who isn’t there) knows what’s coming. The quiz is to happen the day before I leave Delhi. In the middle of jobs, books and research, we met on a few frantic evenings to put together the quiz, for which the lion’s share of work is done by K. And then finally the quiz happens, and we have a getaway car waiting…

Why did we do it?

Partly because we could.

Partly because it was so much fun. Not just in the making fools out of people (which was part of the agenda) but in the construction of alternate universes.

For those of you who are beginning to think I’m sounding a little weird – a quiz question, a good quiz question always entails the creation of a little world. The elements of this little world are ‘facts’, usually pulled out of the real world. These facts are arranged in a narrative, like a micro ‘whodunit’, clues arranged to point towards an answer… a good quiz question has a certain elegance and beauty and narrative economy which points you towards the right answer even if you don’t ‘know’ it. If a quiz question doesn’t do this, it invites the insults of ‘Random’ and ‘Auction’… (Here are some more thoughts on quizzing, narrative and facts after the last quiz I had conducted before this).

In our quiz, the histories of the ‘real world’, its pasts were fictionalized – the facts from which one deduced the ‘answer’ were shifted and changed. I don’t know if our world was better than the real world, but it was certainly more psychedelic, more interesting. In this world, the Hindi phrase lakeer ka fakeer comes from a 16th century Sufi geometer exiled to Mughal India from Ottoman Istanbul because of his belief that lines of perspective should be employed in contemporary painting. The ticker tape parades in New York started because the New York Stock exchange was trying to get rid of the excess paper strewn all over the trading floor at the same time as the Statue of Liberty was being inaugurated/dedicated. All Parveen Babi’s personal travails could be linked back to the fact that her father, the Nawab of Junagarh abandoned her mother, and flew his dogs to Pakistan instead.

Parveen Babi’s father was part of the Junagadh nobility, in real life, but wasn’t the Nawab, who did indeed leave his wives behind and flew off with the dogs. But bending the facts a little made the world more interesting, didn’t it? As did, for example the ‘fact’ that the immortal phrase tatti aur maut kisi ko bhi kisi waqt aa sakti hai (shit and death can happen to anyone at anytime) comes from a Vijaydan Detha story about a Rajput commander who falls from one of those weird Rajasthani dry-latrines hanging out high over the walls of desert forts, along with his shit. And yes, people did answer these questions, occasionally amidst much laughter, because the slightly fantastical world of our questions was made intelligible by the construction of the questions – pointing towards real world answers.

And so what? You might ask. Well, at one level, it was insane amounts of fun, and that’s all it needs to be, and we didn’t get lynched. So there. At another, well, we broke the tyranny of ‘facts’, drilled into us since Kindergarten. The sort that makes you feel ‘world capital games’ and feel studly for knowing that Antannarivo is the capital of Madagascar. (So maybe Pornob was always ahead of his time. Damn.)

At yet another, one might think that giving up on ‘facts’ might be kind of dangerous given how much the ‘invention of the past’ feeds into all sorts of dangerous, reactionary politics. Yes, the BJP. But I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve seen a lot of re-invention of the past happening, that’s part of what I work on as an anthropologist. Much of these re-inventions and the politics behind them I’m in sympathy with. All of these views of the past, unlike the BJP/Sangh Parivar’s, are quite complex. The BJP’s view of the past, on the other hand, is outrageously simplistic. Muslims=Bad, Hindus=Good, Myth=History. All of these histories, like the best ‘professional’ histories, do something we did a very poor approximation of as drunk quiz-makers - you change (reinterpret) the past to make the present more hopeful, or at least, more entertaining…

Maybe that’s too much fun for three lads having fun, being cheeky, and getting away with it, unapologetically.

Maybe that’s what it was all about.

Maybe we’re just full of shit. And tatti aur maut kisi ko bhi kisi bhi waqt aa sakti hai.

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