Myself, Quizzing

Nostalgia: The first Nihilanth

For those who came in late, Nihilanth is an inter-IIT-IIM quiz festival that is held every once in a while. It’s technically supposed to be organized on an annual basis, but that does not happen. It is held at a random IIT or an IIM, the choice of institute being decided by the sudden death of two randomly selected quizzers from every institute on a deserted island, or so I hear.

My association with this festival goes back to the very first time it was organized – brace yourselves, young ‘uns, it was way back in 2003. NINE YEARS, holy moley! I was 23, about to turn 24, and the only quizzes I had conducted so far were in my own college, and in a local Warangal school, where the kids really enjoyed the impromptu Harry Potter round. Except the ones that had not read Harry Potter by then, the little losers. Well anyway, what happened was that we had organized a quiz festival (called Trivium) in our college a few years ago, and I did the music and movie quiz. A bunch of students from REC Surathkal were in attendance, and proceeded to make a killing at the events. They won nearly every quiz, and were kind enough to take us quiz-masters out for dinner as well with their hard-earned prize money. One of them happened to go to IIM Indore a few years later, and it was him – Suryakrishna Tamada Tatineni, ‘Suki’ for short, who had the bright idea of organizing an inter-IIT-IIM event. And the brighter idea of inviting me to conduct the Entertainment quiz.

Somewhere down the line, people seem to have come to the conclusion that I was responsible for naming the aforementioned quiz the ‘MELA’, short for Music(or Movies) Entertainment Literature and Arts, thereby starting the tradition of referring to every entertainment quiz by that name. People are wrong. Personally I thought the name is a ghastly one and I have no idea who coined it. But for better or worse, it has stuck, and I suppose it does not really sound that bad now.

I wasn’t paid much for my services. But that did not matter, I was over the moon at being invited. Why? Because the General quiz was being conducted by a certain Siddharth Basu. I was going to conduct a quiz with – okay, technically just at the same venue, but still – the guy who got a majority of college students in India addicted to quizzing. Yes, this was a Fucking Big Deal indeed. I found out later that the man was paid a 100 times my fee. Heh, now that was a Big Deal.

But screw that. A lot of things came about thanks to that quiz. It jump-started my alternative career as Quizmaster for college festivals around India – which in turn nourished finances for my fledgling comic art collection. The spurt in invites happened primarily because the people who attended the MELA liked it a lot, and when they needed a quiz-master for their college fests, they gave me a chance. Gaurav Sabnis was there. I remember his college contingent being a little late to my quiz, because of which I had go through my prelims again. He had very kind things to say about it – little wonder then that the second quiz I conducted was in IIM Lucknow the next year. Arnav Sinha was in IIT Delhi, and was one of the reasons I was the first QM they locked on when Nihilanth happened there the second time, a few years later. This was also the first time I met Shamanth and Siddharth (who, as I realized recently, keeps popping into the blog every now and then – hi again, Bofi!) They did not make it to the finals of my quiz, but kicked ass in all the others. Fellow Hyderabad-quizzers Dhaaji and Anil were in attendance too – Anil could not participate that year, but Dhaaji did, as a solo IIM Bangalore representative if I remember correctly. I believe I lost all chances of doing a quiz at IIM Bangalore because one of my questions involved identifying the Beatles, from a demo of  ‘Strawberry Fields’, and that pissed him off beyond belief. Sheesh. I wish I have an excuse, but I don’t. What the hell was I thinking?

It was not entirely by coincidence that I ended up in the same taxi as my fellow-Quizmaster doing the Science and Sports quizzes at the event. We were housed in adjacent rooms at the Hotel Sayaji Grande after all, and over genial breakfast conversation on Saturday, we learnt of common interests. Phone numbers, as well as trivia about Richmal Crompton and Tintin comics were exchanged. We promised to stay in touch, more so because he tantalized me with news about how a friend from the USA had gotten him six CDs full of digital comics. I had heard of Arul Mani before, but that was the first time I met the Good Doctor. Neither his magnificent whiskers nor his patented Thigh Grab were on display that day, but it was an auspicious start to a long and lesbian-vampire-enriched relationship. Meeting Arul was also how I found myself in Daly Memorial Hall one fine Sunday that year, asking questions about Malini Iyer, HP Lovecraft and Artemis Fowl to a mostly-befuddled audience of Karnataka Quiz Association members.

So why am I talking about this today? Because of my books, surprisingly. You see, all my books just arrived yesterday from India, and are currently taking up a bulk of my apartment-space. I have been halfheartedly opening up some of them this evening, trying not to hyperventilate in the process. And I came across a bunch of pictures. Most of them were taken by a helpful student on my camera (trivia: the camera was part of my winnings at the Saarang 2001 Main Quiz at IIT Madras). Yes, it was a film camera, and yes, the photographs are mostly crap. But still, a hearty steaming slice of nostalgia.

This year’s Nihilanth was held at IIM Lucknow a few days ago, and it was the first in which I did not conduct a single quiz. On the plus side, I go to watch Porco Rosso in the Egyptian theater tomorrow.


The making of a theme round

(Note: If you are reading this on a feed-reader and you don’t see the Slideshow embedded into the page, you should probably click on the actual post link and read it first. Trust me.)

Every time I am done with a quiz, in addition to the ‘thank you’s and the ‘great show’s that come my way (and the occasional “you call that a quiz?”), there are a few individuals who ask me – “How do you come up with the questions?” Unfortunately, the moment just after the quiz is also the precise instant the adrenaline rush is wearing off, and you realize that you’ve been on your feet for a few hours, and your throat hurts like mad from speaking a little too loud. So the typical answers come out – “I read, and I watch movies, and sometimes the questions just come to you.” Which is all true, but does not really cover the mechanics that go into making a quiz question “sing”, to use a metaphor badly.

While I will go into details of making a quiz question – my personal experience of it, that is – in a future post, I thought it would be nice to write about one round in particular, of a quiz I did this weekend. Why this quiz, and this round, you ask? Well, because I came up with the idea of the theme, and the questions, in about an hour or so, on Saturday morning, when my flight to the venue – IIM Ahmedabad – was just a few hours away. I normally do not cut things so close, but the joys of late-night intercontinental conference calls forced my hand, alas. But the positive part of it was that coming up with this round left me feeling very pleased with myself. It was an India quiz for Nihilanth, the inter-IIT-IIM quiz-fest. Until a few days ago, I had thought about including a theme involving Kamal Hassan movies – which turned out heavily South-India oriented and I dropped the idea. Not all quizzes need theme rounds, so I gave up the idea and focussed on a round made entirely of connect questions.

Somehow I got to reading about the Bharat Ratna – and the part about living recipients caught my eye. Voila, six people, and all of them quiz-worthy individuals. I had the answers to my theme questions, all I needed now were the questions themselves.

Now here’s a confession – every quiz I work on does its best to transform itself into an entertainment quiz – making it almost a matter of pride for me nowadays to keep the ent questions to a minimum. Considering that I was running short of time, and because the quiz was otherwise balanced enough  – and, heh, to add a little misdirection, I thought about making the questions ent-based. So the first question became the most obvious one – Lata Mangeshkar and her brief career as actor and music composer. Old chestnut, phrased in a gender-neutral way, with the answer directly connecting to the theme.

Now the second question in the theme is important, because as soon as the first one is answered, the participants are processing multiple possibilities to which the first answer can relate. An obvious answer, and you find your theme cracked in the second question, and one does not want that, really. So, instead of going with Amartya Sen directly, the question became about his daughter. The answer “Raja Ravi Varma” was completely unrelated to the theme ( as I would inform the participants as the quiz progressed), but hey, you could see Nandana Sen in the poster.

For the third question, I had multiple options – there was the one about Ravi Shankar having “remixed” Saara Jahaan Se Accha for the Doordarshan theme music, there were possible Beatles questions, maybe something about Anoushka Shankar ( the thought of which I ditched immediately, because two father-daughter connects would have been a bit too much ). Maybe something about the Grammies, because of the recent Indian nominations? But then a little serendipity came into play – just that morning, I had heard Nitin Sawhney’s soundtrack to The Namesake, and I remembered reading his comment Shankar’s soundtrack for Pather Panchali on the Guardian’s Top 50 OSTs list. Brief googling and yes, I had the precise context, and I remembered that I also had the PP soundtrack somewhere as part of another album. Couldn’t find it, and decided to play one of The Namesake tracks instead. Another question down.

Nelson Mandela’s question was straightforward – though there was the brief temptation to hunt for the comic that was made on his life and ask something on it. But Invictus was more relevant, it had just come out last December and was an Oscar contender. Since it was based on a book, and the book was not called Invictus, there you go. Straightforward, slightly long-winded, mostly-guessable question.

With Kalam, I was completely out of ideas. Time was running out, and I had absolutely no desire to go looking for his poetry or quotes from his books – there is a Rahman song written around his lyrics but again, too much work. So settled for reading his Wikipedia entry, and hell yeah, his Hoover medal, how did I forget that? Done, and sorry, I knew it wasn’t ent-oriented, but there’re compromises a man’s gotta make when he’s running out of time, and this was one of them.

Which left us with the last question, the one on Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, and I didn’t have to think twice. The first question of the preliminary round of the quiz was – “What was the first instrument seen on the video of Phir Mile Sur Mera Tumhara?” It was only fair to have the last question of the quiz to be about the original Mile Sur video, and yup, it made me happy to end the quiz on that note. One might argue that my quest for closure in my quiz made the last question too easy. But two points you have to understand – at this point of the quiz, there would be the people who had already cracked the theme, so chances that they knew the answer already was very high. And this being a college quiz, the percentage of the demographic who had seen the original video of Mile Sur was, in my opinion, very low.

Endgame: So, did it work out the way I had planned? Not really. For starters, mentioning that the theme was exhaustive kept everyone guessing. As expected, the second question proved misleading enough. But the unforeseen problem-child was the Pather Panchali question, which had everyone thinking Satyajit Ray instead of Ravi Shankar – a train of thought I had …uh…neglected to take into account. Obviously Ray was also a Bharat Ratna recipient, but one very much dead, defeating my theme squarely. It had participants guessing things like ‘people who received highest civilian awards from multiple countries’, or ‘Indians who have won the Legion d’Honneur”. Oh well, they did get it at the end, but in hindsight, I should probably have mentioned Ravi Shankar as the connect, would have made things much easier.

So there you go, an insight into how a theme was made. Not my favorite bunch of questions, and not the greatest theme of all time, but a quick and dirty way of doing it. Mind you, going in reverse is not the only way to go about creating a theme round. Maybe I will talk about the other way in another post, or maybe this post will get some proper quiz-masters to talk about the mechanics of creating a quiz on their blogs.


Nihilanth 2008

Part of the aftermath of every quiz I conduct is the proliferation of questions-that-should-have-been. I kid you not, it’s almost like Nature unburdens herself with a deluge of quiz-worthy information just to spit in your eye and rub it in about how much your quiz sucked and how better it would have been had you just read this bit of news one week ago, or if only you thought of that particular theme topic, or…

Ah well, the trick is to ignore all of the self-loathing and move on in life. As far as I am concerned, I just finished a quiz, and it went well, according to the organisers and quite a few of the participants. It was the Entertainment quiz for Nihilanth 2008, organised by IIT Bombay. Nihilanth, for those who came in late, is an inter-IIT-IIM quiz festival that has been around since 2002. In theory an annual event, it suffers from frequent lapses in its agenda; not without reason – the selection of venue and time of the year in which to conduct the fest is a humongously complicated process that involves blood sacrifices under the full moon, tactical maneuvers fought with eldritch weapons and followed by much lamentation of women. Uh, complicated process, don’t bother. But doing a Nihilanth quiz has always been fun. The first one was my first ever professional outing as a QM, one that brought me into contact with quite a few interesting people, set in motion a frenzied quiz-outings across institutes throughout the country and also ensured a steady supply of Sino-Japanese-Korean content into my hard drive. This one had zero effect on hard drive, but was fun all the same.

What surprised me the most this time when I entered the hall was the number of familiar faces in attendance. Quizzing folks I remembered meeting from quite-a-few-years-ago and who I was pretty sure would be off the college circuit by now. Then I realised the bulk of them were ex-IITians who were now IIMians. The Prelims went by without a hiccup, and because there was a lunch break before the finals, I got some time to polish up the slides for the Finals, sat back and read Warren Ellis’s Thunderbolts until the quiz began at 2. Apart from a bit of confusion in the middle of the finals where some of the videos did not show up on the projection screen – I had to exit the presentation, which in turn crashed Powerpoint and forced me to reboot the laptop – the finals went pretty much on time and in synch with whatever expectations I had. A long visual connect in the middle caused an incredible upset in the rankings because the IIM Kozhikode team ( which included LVC veteran Shamanth ) cracked it early on. IIM Indore maintained their lead throughout the quiz. Quite a few teams from IIMA were in the finals, and I believe one of them came third. Because there was a bit of time left and also because IITM weren’t anywhere around, I snuck in my second long visual connect as well. I had put it on hold the day before because udupendra told me there was something similar asked in this year’s Saarang, the kind of information that forces hasty rearrangement of slides and much heart-burn.

The trip was pretty hectic because I wanted to be back early on Sunday, and the only other quiz I managed to attend was Shamanth’s Lone Wolf quiz. That officially makes him the first quizmaster+participant in Nihilanth history. Scheduled to begin at 7 PM, it began at around 11 PM, not for any fault of the organisers, apparently there was a clash of venues with another event. This brought back good memories of late-night ( or early-morning, depending on how you look at it) quizzes of yore, but my biological clock just could not handle the sleep-cycle shift and I crashed at around 2:30 AM.

Hold on a second, you ask. Wasn’t I supposed to be off quizzing? Well, yes I was. I guess this stint officially ends my sabbatical. Oh yes, world, I am back. ( You can be Mozart, if you want.)


On The Quiz Trail vol 3

Three quizzes. Loads of Cadbury’s Gift Boxes as audience prizes. Good food. A press conference. Yes, I meant press conference, the kind with bright lights going off in your face and questions being asked. Not the one with the impatient washermen. And the famed Big Basu. Definitely a day to remember.

Arul Mani’s Science and Tech Quiz was the most engaging scientific trip ever! We spent some time talking, and man, is he god or what…

Somewhere down the line, I learnt that he was a major comics/crime-fiction/sci-fi buff. Heh heh heh.

Saw a little more of the IIM campus today. The quizzes were being held in the new campus, which is quite far from the city. Most of the construction is complete, and the first-year students have classes going on here. The second-year students are too addicted to the LAN in the old campus, and because the Intranet hasn’t been set up in the new hostels, they haven’t moved yet. The campus is atop a hill, kind of resembles REC Silchar minus the lakes.

The two quizzes in the morning were chill-out sessions for me. The audience prizes were HUGE boxes of chocolates and since I was in the first row and since the guy holding the boxes was sitting next to me, there was this constant stream of chocolate boxes our way. I never thought I would get tired of hogging Cadbury’s chocolates, apparently I thought wrong.

Anil and his team won three quizzes, by the way. Way to go, dude!

Gautam Ghosh’s quiz was ok, standard calcutta fare, not exactly my cup of tea. Enjoyed some bits of it, loathed some parts.

At about five, the Lone Wolf and Science/Tech quizzes are over. I am sitting there talking to Arul when BAM! Suki comes along with this bald guy and says “This is Satyajit Chetri” and I think it’s some sponsor or maybe the Principal and then realise that oh gosh this is him. He looked pretty different, you know. And the booming voice we hear on TV is obviously something he turns on along with the spotlight and the cameras. True showmanship. But the charm, the smile is always there. You can never catch him off his guard.

We are then hustled onto the podium for the “press conference”. Most of the time, it’s Le Basu answering questions (including an awful one comparing his accent with Derek O’Brien’s, the reporter sure deserved a Razzie for this one…)and fielding the rest to Gautam Ghosh. Arun and I mumble politely every time we’re asked something ( which is not too frequently) and then somebody asks something about comparing quizzers of bygone days with the quizzers of today, and I find the mike shoved towards me ( very politely, of course ) and I blabber something that sounds very asinine when I think about it now. I get a lot of polite applause, of course. Very Diplomatic, these IIM people.

Anyways, I also corrected Gautam Ghosh’s comment about Nihilanth being the first Quiz Festival in India. I did remember to credit RVCE’s Under The Peepul Tree and then went ahead and mentioned Trivium. However, I did say that Nihilanth was the best Quiz Fest I have been to so far. Which is, frankly, true.

The General Quiz at the end went off quite well, with slight technical hitches. it was conducted in the open-air theatre and was followed by a sumptous dinner. Good-byes ( and a lot of business cards) were exchanged. Note to myself: Next time, get more freakin’ cards along, dumbo.

I leave for Hyderabad tomorrow. I will miss Sayaji Grande. I wish I had a little space in my tummy to order and eat a Chicken Stroganoff now.

It seems Arul, me and Gautam Ghosh have the same flight to Mumbai. Arul says he knows a shop in Bandra that sells pretty good books. Aah.

And everyone was still praising my quiz. I actually had a guy come to me and ask about tips on becoming a Quizmaster. I actually engaged in lively banter with Siddharth Basu. Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.


On The Quiz Trail vol 2

So it’s over.

I believe mine was the quiz with the longest prelims – 42 questions in all, 22 dries, 11 visuals and 9 audio – which took a far longer time than it should have because of technical glitches that creep in at every quiz. Like, the projector didn’t start, and then the speakers didn’t work ( or rather, they did work in a druggie mode, with a very high-pitched sound that crept in along with the music being played ) Then another problem happened to be the scarcity of xeroxes of question-papers – which resulted in my reading out questions 16-22. And, boy oh boy, my longest questions were part of the prelims, only so that I wouldn’t have to read ’em out.

But it went well, all of it. Gautam Ghosh scared me, when he took a look at the question paper and said – “This is way too tough.” And then I told him some of the answers and he was pretty happy, because they weren’t as oddball as he had thought. And after the prelims, when I started reading out the answers, the response was …awesome. All the teams seemed to get quite a lot of answers.

In a nutshell, then, it was a good quiz. Sure, there were people who came and said that they had been to lots of quizzes before, but none as good as this one( to which I could just give a silly grin and go “purrrrr” in my head), and there were some who wanted me to conduct quizzes at their respective institutes ( I controlled myself from asking “how much are your paying?”, too much enthu is not good ), but there was also Dhaaji, who absolutely refused to call me to be the QM for any of the IIMB quizzes because I had given a team 10 points for indentifying a band singing Strawberry Fields as the Beatles. Which, I admit, was a mistake I made today, the only one, to be precise.

There were loads of unasked questions – dries, visuals and audio. The special round I had thought of, called “One Giant Leap” ( eight topics, three questions for each topic, +1, +3, +5 points for a hop, a skip, or a jump question ) was also put on hold – all because there was no time, and at some part of it, my back started aching real bad, and I started to get the feeling I was stretching things too much.

Later, somebody told me that I could have extended it by two hours and they would have sat through it.

Hmm, this is doing wonders for my confidence.