Thursday, November 2, 2017

For the love of quizzing, or Angelo Rozairo's lesson

The Blue and Gold Quiz, organised by the General Knowledge Club of Royal College, will be held on Tuesday, November the 7th at the College Hall for the 27th consecutive time.

Angelo Rozairo, who taught French at my school, was the wittiest teacher I ever encountered. He had that rare ability to turn the most banal sayings downside up, to disrupt the processes and structures which organisations flaunted in the name of order, to defend his students if they ever had been misunderstood by authorities. He had a big enough heart and a big enough mind too: open to virtually every field of activity a language could open anyone up to, he could refer to anything substantive, be it from his subject to the latest movie. Teachers like that are rare, sadly. They just don’t come like that anymore.

I remember a particular evening at the school canteen, a few weeks after the Quiz Club had organised an inter-house competition which had, all in all, not gone very well. Monsieur Rozairo, as we called him then, had read the souvenir I had hastily put together for the occasion. Buried deep within that souvenir was a message I had even more hastily penned: a banal, pretentious essay on the importance of knowing facts, understanding the world, and so on. Monsieur Rozairo had read it, and as I entered the canteen, he stopped me, grinned, and pointed me to something I had written in that essay: that true knowledge, like true wisdom, can never harm or unduly benefit anyone. In hindsight that was a rather stupid point to make.

Monsieur looked at me, quoted what I’d written, and informed me point-blank and candidly, “Knowledge is not a weapon, you say. It’s not a tool to expropriate from others, you say. But that’s knowledge as you understand it, with respect to harmless statistics. There’s a body of knowledge that is a weapon and can expropriate. It’s called blackmail.” This was new to me of course, not least of all because it never occurred to me that blackmail could constitute knowledge. Looking back now, I believe that was a failure on my part: knowledge resists compartmentalisation. It includes everything. And excludes nothing. As it should.

The rift between knowledge and wisdom is so tight that no one, not even a dim-witted halfwit, would consider challenging it. And to a considerable extent, there is a great deal of truth in that dichotomy: while knowledge, as we understand it today, has been reduced to parroting out facts and figures, wisdom entails application, discrimination, analysis, more than mere comprehension. It’s easy to know, tougher to know how to apply what one knows. In turn this is rooted in the rather terrible dichotomy between the thinkers and the doers in our society: the former know what kind of nail your Monet or Degas needs to stay pinned on the wall, while the latter will not know but will be ready to comply with whatever nail is given to them. Which brings me to the subject of this piece: the function and place of quizzes and quiz clubs here.

First and foremost, there are more table quizzes (my definition: a series of rounds whether clearly or vaguely defined which get participants to pen down answers around a table) in here than there ever were before. This sudden proliferation, obviously, has to do with the mass culture we have institutionalised. Probably no one would have imagined the kind of populist quizzes aired on television today (think of Sirasa Pentathlon) three or four years ago, or those reality shows that test and reward what one knows in front of a live audience (Obada Lakshapathi). There are traditions embedded in these competitions, however, which not even the most glamorous, technically novel reality show can flounder. In large part, these traditions have been kept and sustained by clubs which bear a long history. Particularly in our schools.

On Tuesday, November the 7th the General Knowledge Club of Royal College, Colombo will unveil the 27th Blue and Gold Quiz, the longest running school quiz in this country. Incidentally the Club itself is not the oldest, since that distinction belongs (I believe) to the Club at Richmond College, Galle. Whatever the number of years, the length, or even the distinctions, historical or otherwise, however, these competitions help us understand how the culture of quizzing evolved in Sri Lanka, or for that matter in the world, from a series of casual flings to what it has become today.

The Blue and Gold Quiz differs from most other quizzes, whether organised by school societies or private institutions, with respect to its format: while most competitions are categorised into rounds dedicated to particular themes (Current Affairs, History, Geography) this tournament is more or less scattered with rounds that don’t follow such themes and are a veritable mishmash of written down queries and audio and video clips. While this can disconcert, it also can push the unwary quizzer: if he has come expecting certain questions to follow a certain format, he will be sorely disappointed, but at the same time his mind will be more sharpened and pitted against every other competitor. It’s an exhilarating, open textured format, in other words, refreshingly random, though it has attracted its share of flak over the years.

27 years isn’t a long time when considering that quizzing in Sri Lanka boasts of a longer, richer history, but it is relevant considering that its inception coincides with the flowering of a cohesive culture of quizzing. The oldest school quiz club, as I mentioned earlier, was established at Richmond College somewhere in the late fifties (1957, if I am not mistaken, in which case 2017 marks its 60th anniversary).

It was from Richmond College that two prominent quizzing personalities emerged. The first of these, Shelton Wirasinha, who later wound up as Principal at Wesley College, became the first Quiz Master in Sri Lanka, when in the eighties he hosted the Dulux Do You Know Quiz, a must-watch show from the day it started in 1982 to its demise three years later (when Wirasinha passed away). The Dulux Quiz (followed by its Sinhala variant, Soyamu Pilithuru, hosted by Gunaratne Abeysekera) had among its more illustrious participants Saliya Pieris, who won second place in 1984 and who has now become one of Sri Lanka’s most well-informed fundamental rights lawyers.

The eighties and the nineties were clearly tumultuous decades and this in particular owing to the rise and maturing of television. It is television, then, that salvaged quizzing, though ironically it was overwhelmed and taken over by the traditional table format we see today, at our schools or at private institutions ranging from the banking to the telecommunications industry. That the Blue and Gold Quiz began in 1990, then, is not coincidental: the truth is that television had saved our quizzers, but only for a short while. With the turn of the millennium, and the entry of the World Quizzing Championships in Sri Lanka, we returned to the conventional table tournament.

Which begs the question, naturally: in a context where everything and anything is at our beck and call through the internet, do quiz shows matter? Yes and no: yes because Google has all but completely trivialised the need to recall, and no because the argument that the webscape is a substitute for our memory is fallacious since a) it means we are depending on technology, which shouldn’t be the case anyway, and b) it’s no different to saying that we must let go of the need to remember mathematical calculations and equations because of (what else?) calculators. This latter point was conceded by the second prominent quizzer that Richmond College bred: Lathikka Niriella, currently the Number One Quizzer in Sri Lanka, whose story I will get to. Soon. For the time being, though, here are some final reflections.

Like I noted before, there are more school quizzes being inaugurated here than ever before. Two reasons account for this: one, the proliferation of TV shows that market quiz shows like hotcakes, and two, the solid base the activity has been blessed with, thanks to earlier quiz shows organised by older schools. Whatever the part of the country – from the North to the South – quizzing is an intensely fascinating activity which continues to take in more and more members each year. The fact that the General Knowledge Club remains among the five most popular extracurricular activities at Royal College is a testament to this. I believe the same can be said of Clubs and Societies in other schools, elsewhere. With one caveat: if they are made to privilege age and seniority over interest and enthusiasm, they cannot and will not see through the long term. That is why there are selection procedures and why students are trained from a young age.

Magnus Magnusson, who died 10 years ago after a lifetime spent hosting what was then the leading TV Quiz Show, BBC’s Mastermind, once quipped on the controversy surrounding memorising nuggets of information: “To my mind, there is no such thing as knowledge not worth knowing.” This raises another question: should quizzes test you on knowledge alone? After all, I’ve come to appreciate more hardy questions, the sort that asks you, “If a peacock lays three eggs in one hour, how many eggs can it lay in three?” and laughs at you when you answer “Nine” when the correct answer should have been “Peacocks don’t lay eggs, stupid!” Perhaps these quizzes, including the Blue and Gold, will get us closer to them. And perhaps what Monsieur Angelo Rozairo told me holds true: there’s nothing that can’t be called knowledge.

Photos courtesy of: The Photographic Society of Royal College

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 2 2017