A dear friend living in India was helping out at a school quiz last week. She wryly told me about some of the more astonishing responses that day.
To the question, which architectural structure did poet Rabindranath Tagore describe as a tear on the face of history, instead of the Taj Mahal, some representatives of India’s bright future responded, “Sri Lanka”. And with patriotic flourish—or limited command over language—one respondent even wrote “Mahatma Gandhi”. In response to another question about which celebrity called his Saturday Night Live appearance in September one of the most important moments in his life, a student actually wrote “Rajiv Gandhi”. The correct answer: Michael Phelps.
Quiz is not guesswork; it requires a skill. During my school and college days, those of us who took part in quizzes felt smug not because we thought we knew more, but because we knew we could figure stuff out. A quiz was not a test of your memory, but of your ability to infer. The joy doubled because others could never understand how we knew what we knew. Many felt we stayed up all night memorizing capitals of the world and heights of mountains. But good quizzing was about being able to connect unconnected things, linking parts of information and inferring the answer by trusting instincts: and all of that within a tight deadline. The TV series Kaun Banega Crorepati? (Who wants to be a millionaire?) changed that. As my friend and leading quizzer Devangshu Datta puts it, the show takes the drama out of quizzing by eliminating the need to respond quickly. In life, we have to make snappy decisions based on imperfect information and follow our hunches. If right, you get the points or the market rewards you. If not, there are consequences.
But this quiz show is like a lottery ticket. From being a test of one’s abilities, it becomes a game of chance. It places on par quirky memories—or remembering what seems inconsequential, but is actually interesting—with phoning a friend. It follows the wisdom of crowds. Life requires snappy decisions; there is no syllabus to learn by heart.
Let me give an example. On Monday night, I was at a quiz in London. To the question, which leading personality lost an election in 1983 and decided to devote her life to bringing up her children by leaving electoral politics, my English friends’ instinctive response was Glenys Kinnock (wife of former Labour leader Neil).
This was at the height of Thatcherite Britain, when conservatives trounced Labour stalwarts with ease. I felt, instinctively, that it had to be Cherie Blair. I can’t explain why I felt that: I felt it had to be her because she could have been a strong politician, but had opted to become a successful lawyer and raise her children. I was outvoted on my table; we went with Mrs Kinnock; the answer was Mrs Blair.
We were luckier the next time. In a fiendishly irritating round, we were shown photographs of 15 British novelists (but not given their names) and handed a map of London from 1851, with 15 numbered areas. We had to match the picture with the number, without naming the novel or the writer. A teammate matched the old man who looked like Robert Louis Stevenson with Hyde Park, (for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). He got it right. And I matched Somerset Maugham with Lambeth because, with the kind of flash that can’t be explained easily, I remembered his book Liza of Lambeth. I hadn’t read it, but it didn’t matter. It won us that point.
The final question tested the power of intuition: Till the 1860s, there were regular cricket matches between the one-armed and the one-legged. One side usually won—which one? One of my teammates said the one-legged, for the batsmen could use the leg-glance.
Ah, I said, but Ranji invented the stroke, and he did not play till the 1890s. The stroke was the red herring. But we felt, instinctively, that the two-armed would be able to hit the ball harder in any direction, and the one-armed would find it harder to catch, and to hit forcefully. The logic of Occam’s Razor. So we went with the one-legged. And that was, indeed, the answer.
None of us had known the answer (till that evening, I didn’t know such matches took place). But we put clues together. We were often right, though sometimes wrong, too. We did not win. But we weren’t at the bottom either. We had a happy evening and made new friends. And we realized that we can’t know everything we don’t know. But figuring out is not hard. What helps is the wisdom of the few, not the crowd—but that wisdom is shaped not by memorization, but by instinct, intuition and inference.
That’s the way you avoid getting lost in the crowd—by not following the instincts of a herd, because knowing something does not mean knowing everything.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com