Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Lathikka Niriella: Mad about quizzing

Reflections on Sri Lanka’s Number One Quizzer.

Quiz competitions aren’t just about questions and answers. They are about teams pitting their wits against each other and getting to know about each other. They are about teachers, students, and well-wishers exchanging pleasantries. And they are about relationships and commonalities rooted in the excitement of knowing the correct answer to the correct question. Unfortunately I haven’t been to many quizzes, I haven’t met many teachers, students, or well-wishers, and I haven’t exchanged (m)any pleasantries this way. But I have met Lathikka Niriella, the Number One Quizzer in this country. He had a story. And I badly wanted to write it down.

Lathikka Asiri Niriella was born to a family that instilled in him an open, liberal attitude to the world. His father, Professor Chandrasiri Niriella, had been a forensic pathologist, while his mother Chitra Niriella had been a stickler for the arts (particularly music). Consequently young Lathikka grew up adoring the arts and the sciences, a point he attributes to another fact: that he was able to read, and understand, beyond his age. “When I was eight, I went on reading more and more history and science books, all of which happened to be discernibly outside what had been prescribed.” Compounding this, of course, was his education: firstly at Trinity College, Kandy, and later at Richmond College, Galle.

Curiously enough he had studied almost exclusively in Sinhala at Trinity, a problem given that he became probably the student in his class with the “least amount of knowledge” of English. “But I picked it up, primarily because at Trinity we were taught textbooks that were far advanced for our age. So we ended up studying the Grade Four textbook in Grade Three. And it wasn’t merely my schooling. My two brothers and I were encouraged to listen to Western music, and not just Sinhala or Hindi melodies, and to read as much as we could in English by my parents. We soon became cosmopolitans."

Things had been different at Richmond College, where he and his brothers were admitted to after the whole family moved to Galle in 1982. His father’s job had been the reason for the shift. “That was a time when highly educated people were respected. We weren’t really rich, but people didn’t bother with status. They were awed by my father, the result being that we were held in esteem by our new neighbourhood.”

He quickly adapted to life at Richmond, not surprisingly, revelling in his favourite subject, Social Studies. It was at his new school, moreover, that this young reader, learner, and connoisseur of sorts engaged in his first real school activity: the Quiz Club, apparently Sri Lanka’s oldest such school club with a history going back to 1957. This had been supplemented by a TV series: the first local quiz show, the Dulux Do You Know Contest, hosted by the man who had established the Club at Richmond, the redoubtable Shelton Wirasinha. Lathikka was impressed: “All what my parents encouraged in me came out in the questions he asked.” The Dulux Contest wrapped up in 1985 (when Wirasinha passed away), but its impact on him was monumental.

Lathikka did his O Levels in 1988, gaining nine distinctions, and his A Levels three years later, gaining less-than-expected results (three C’s and one S) that compelled him to sit for it again the following year (1992). His second attempt yielded a more favourable total (240 out of 400 marks), enough to secure him a placement at the University of Moratuwa. Meanwhile he had joined the Quiz Club during his A Levels, taking part in his first competition in January 1991 at the Master Mind Contest organised by the Lion’s Club (the Master Mind, back then open to only schools, would later open up to private teams and individuals). The Richmond team emerged third (“I believe the Royal College team came first”). After his A Level years were up, however, he left the Club, which meant several years spent concentrating on his degree: a Bachelor’s in Built Environment (a multidisciplinary field that has since been divided into various streams).

Those years of study and concentration eventually gave way to his love for quizzing, when it was resuscitated by a series of foreign shows he began watching on local television, especially Jeopardy. “About two years after that, in 1999, there was a quiz organised at the University inviting every Faculty to participate. I was strangely the only contestant from my department. Pitted against so many other students, I emerged as the winner.” The quiz had been organised by Dinesh Weeratunga (a veteran quizzer from Royal College), who, seeing the victor, asked him to consider joining his team. “That’s how I got to meet my other quizzing partners: Ruwan Senanayake and Nalaka Gunawardene. I joined them in 2001.”

By the time he completed his degree in 2003, he had let go of any desire to be an architect. “I figured out that I didn’t want to ‘apply’ what I had learnt. So I became a journalist, starting out in 2000 with the Daily Mirror. Back then Lalith Alahakoon was the Editor.” He had followed it up with teaching stints at Elizabeth Moir from September 2002 to July 2003, Colombo South for a few months in 2007, and a small school in Nugegoda called Southland from 2008 to 2011, before joining Royal Institute in January 2012. “I teach Science and History,” he tells me, “And I enjoy it very, very much.”

So how did this journalist and teacher pursue quizzing? From 2001 to 2007 he and Ruwan Senanayake forged on ahead with more contests throughout the country. Of his own accord, Lathikka went for pub quizzes, starting with the Echelon Pub Quiz at the Colombo Hilton, coming in at third or fourth place, and finally winning it in 2002. This latter victory opened him to another invitation, extended by Haren Fernando and a group of students from Elizabeth Moir (where he would soon be teaching). “What happened thereafter was this: for Pub Quizzes I would be in Haren’s team, for normal quizzes I would be in Ruwan’s team.” Added to this was another landmark win: the 2006 World Quizzing Championship, where Lathikka came second 125th in the world and second in Sri Lanka after Haren.

He found himself in another team when, in 2011 after Ruwan had left for Australia, he was extended another invitation, this time by an almost larger-than-life artist who had returned from the United States with his brother: Vindana Ariyawansha. “That was quite a team, to be honest. We were joined by Haren, Dilantha Gunawardana, and Dhammika Atapattu, all of whom have since become reckonable quizzers.”

I put to Lathikka that inasmuch as quizzing, like chess, inspires passion so much that ardent fans tend to take to it at the cost of nearly everything else, in Sri Lanka some balance must be struck between what you love and how you live. He agrees. “I always tell my students to study what they do not just for quiz competitions but for their general education as well. Especially in private schools, there is an immense pressure for you to ‘recover’ what your parents spent because of you by entering University. Quizzes are fun. They are exhilarating. They open you up. But by themselves, they are not enough.”

Which brings me to my next question: what does it take to win at a quiz? Memory? Logic? Common sense? According to Lathikka, it’s a sleek combination of all three. “In this field, all other things being what they are, having a good memory will immediately improve you and put you at an advantage. But a good memory alone won’t do. You need to think logically, to deduct and to add. If three of four possible answers to a question about Pre-Raphaelite painters involve Picasso, Da Vinci, and Monet, you know the fourth answer has to be the correct one.” That last point compels another question, incidentally: in an era where Google has overwhelmed memory and recall, do quizzes really matter?

Lathikka is noticeably cautious in his reply: “For one thing, quizzes are exciting. They oil your memory. I believe it was Niels Bohr, the physicist, who contended that the more you stretch your mind, the more it liberates itself. So yes, in answer to your question they do matter. Moreover, the point that the digital era makes quizzes obsolete is rather fallacious considering that this means you don’t need to remember mathematical calculations and equations because of calculators. Today’s children are interested less and less in recall than in resorting to Google. They’ve become dependent on technology, simply put.”

What about the quality of the game in the country? “Inasmuch as those TV shows we have are competitive, and qualitatively better than they used to be, we are still very much behind our neighbours. For instance, this year I was ranked the 23rd top quizzer in the Asia-Pacific region. Of the other 22, 19 are from India, two from Australia, and one from New Zealand. This cannot be a coincidence. Even the Indian Quiz Shows are far better than ours. Which brings me to another point: the fact that none of the top 25 Asian Quizzers is from East Asia – including Japan and Singapore – indicates that their preference for memorising facts hasn’t helped them become major players in this field. That takes me to what I told you earlier: having a well oiled memory won’t help you stay ahead in this field all the time. You need to think logically as well.”

Well oiled memory and logical thinking: it would seem that Lathikka Niriella has fortunately been blessed with both. That has doubtless helped him stay ahead, wherever he has been: as a teacher, as a journalist, as a raconteur. Surprisingly for me, though, he prefers to remain aloof, though when shared interests come into play he opens up and pours out one anecdote after another. Perhaps it’s that passion for reading he still has. Perhaps it’s his mother and father. Perhaps it’s Shelton Wirasinha, Richmond College, and all those fellow travellers he has encountered. Or perhaps it’s a combination of all these things. Whatever the answer, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve done my job. I’ve taken down his story.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 7 2017