Home >Leisure >The first family of quizzing

I haven’t spent a quiet Independence Day at home in nearly a decade and a half now. Like hundreds of others in Chennai, my 15 August mornings consist of keyed-up anticipation and an especially thorough reading of the newspaper; butterflies make marathon excursions in my stomach. My afternoons and evenings are then consumed by the Landmark Quiz, the ruddiest of the many red-letter days in Chennai’s quizzing calendar, in which nearly 900 three-member teams vie to make it on stage for the hard-fought eight-team final. This annual orgy of quizzing lasts close to 5 hours, and these are the 5 hours for which all serious quizzers spend the remainder of their year preparing and waiting.

For the love of questions: (from left) Navin, Saranya, Ishwar and P.B. Jayakumar--three generations of quiz aficionados. Navin’s brothers, who are quizzers, live overseas.

When my teammates and I first won the Landmark Quiz in 2000, we’d already prepared and waited in vain for five editions, eliminated in the written preliminary round every time and so consigned to watching the final from the audience. In 2000, however, not only did we qualify handily but, on the back of wild guessing more than judicious reasoning, we proceeded to beat the other established teams on stage. But only the following year, when we squeaked through on the last question to win again, did we truly consider ourselves to have won the Landmark Quiz, because that was the year Navin Jayakumar, 47, returned, after a year’s sabbatical, as quizmaster.

Very soon after its birth in 1992, the Landmark Quiz had begun to draw teams from across the country. Last year, it expanded into a regional rounds-national final format, and next Saturday, the top two finalists from the Landmark Quizzes in Pune, Mumbai and Bangalore will travel to Chennai to first watch that city’s regional final and then compete against its two victors for the national title. The quiz has struck the magic balance between becoming an improbable spectator sport and remaining a quiz-nerd’s perfect evening out—in fact, struck it so well that after the prelims, the ground floor of the Music Academy auditorium remains nearly full until the final ends, the audience willing to ferociously applaud questions on Nino Rota’s film scores or Bahadur Shah Zafar’s final days.

Also Read The other Indian quizzing family

That balance, and the consequent popularity of the quiz, is due entirely to Navin, and indeed to the Jayakumar family as a whole. The clan’s stamp is visible throughout the quiz. Last year, when Navin was on stage, his son Ishwar, 18, operated a bank of audio-video equipment and ran the presentation; Navin’s mother Saranya, 69, has for long aided him and his friend Gautam Padmanabhan in setting the quiz, and his younger brothers Niranjan, 45, and Srikanth, 40, have occasionally sent in questions from overseas. The Jayakumars are Indian quizzing’s first family, the title contested only by their close friends, the O’Briens—Neil and his sons Barry, Andy and Derek—from Kolkata.

It was Saranya Jayakumar who turned her family into an emporium of quizzers. When she was studying literature in Chennai, first at Queen Mary’s College and then at Presidency College, she began to take part in the two inter-collegiate quizzes that punctuated the academic year. “We won those quite a few times," she says. “But then I got married and moved to Calcutta, and I had four kids. So for a long spell, I didn’t really read anything—there was enough to do otherwise."

Around 1978, when her nephew came to stay with the family in Kolkata, he saw an advertisement in The Statesman for the North Star Quiz, the most prestigious Indian open quiz at the time. “He suggested that we go, so we went," Saranya says. “In my innocence, I didn’t think we needed to read up on anything. It was a real eye-opener, that quiz—just the standards of what people knew. A 14-year-old boy answered a question about the Belgian national anthem, and I remember thinking: ‘How did he know that?’"

Gradually, however, Saranya helped build Motley Crew, a team that became a real contender in the city’s quizzing circles. “For most of the 1970s and 1980s, two teams dominated the open quiz scene in India," recalls Derek O’Brien. “The Dalhousie Institute quartet was led for decades by my father, Neil, while I was one of the ‘lighterweights’ in the team. Mrs Saranya Jayakumar was the pivot of...Motley Crew. The teams were great quizzing rivals, but there was tremendous admiration and respect for each other." In 1985, the Jayakumars had to return to Chennai. “That was a wrench, because I was enjoying myself," Saranya says. Navin, meanwhile, had already started both medical school and serious quizzing in Chennai, and his brothers quizzed too, although—Saranya says—somewhat less seriously. In one particularly dynastic North Star national final in Kolkata, the Chennai team featured Navin, the Kolkata team featured Saranya, and the New Delhi team featured Srikanth, who was studying at Pilani at the time.

“The first year my friend and I went to the North Star quiz in Chennai, we were really too scared to take part, so we just sat and watched," says Navin, now an ophthalmologist. “The next year, we won the Chennai round—and we won it for the next seven years." By a stroke of luck, Navin stumbled upon the book that the North Star quizmaster, Sadhan Banerjee, used for many of his questions. “So we studied it. My friend Deepak and I would sit with the book, and I’d read the left page, and he’d read the right page."

When they moved back to Chennai, Navin and Saranya formed a team, filched Padmanabhan from Niranjan’s college team and called themselves Memory Banks, a name they retain to this day. Memory Banks won the national North Star final three times before the quiz lapsed into obsolescence in the mid-1990s. “There weren’t too many open quizzes in Madras at the time, so we’d drive down as a family to Bangalore and take part in quizzes there," Saranya remembers. “We even drove down to Coimbatore for a quiz—we were that enthusiastic."

The mania for quizzing somehow left Navin’s sister Vaishnavi, 37—who helped found the Chennai-based non-governmental organization Banyan—and his father P.B. Jayakumar, 74, relatively unscathed, although they always looked upon it with tolerance if not support. “My daughter and I could be talking about how there’s no money in the bank, or something like that," Jayakumar says. “And Saranya and Navin will be saying to each other: ‘Did you know this question?’ or ‘Yesterday, so-and-so asked me this question’." Saranya admits, with a guilty smile, that it doesn’t always make for the best of manners. “At family dinners, Vaishnavi will often ask: ‘Why do you guys have to do this all the time?’"

Those conversations would only become more frequent. In 1987, Navin helped start the Chennai chapter of the Quiz Foundation of India (QFI), a club of youngsters so eager about quizzing that the stories of the early days of QFI come tinged with a curious pathos. “Every time we had a meeting, we’d have to send out postcards to our members, announcing the time and venue," says Gopal Kidao, now the secretary of QFI-Chennai. “And then we’d have to cycle over to the local police station and get permission to conduct these meetings." Kidao remembers one particular middle-aged gentleman who would buy cups of coffee for the assembled members and then begin enquiring of each young man if he was a student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). “We think he was looking for a groom for his daughter," Kidao laughs.

Roughly around the same time, Navin turned quizmaster, conducting Chennai’s first audio-visual quiz (Navin’s father, sister, and wife Sumana, tongue lodged in cheek, formed a team called Memory Blanks—and qualified for the final). “It wasn’t easy setting visual questions then," Navin says. “We had to take photos of the pictures we found in library books, laying them out in the sun to get maximum light, and then convert the photos into slides. But for the three days before the quiz, it rained. Then the sun came out, and our camera promptly failed. I nearly had a heart attack putting that quiz together."

That audio-visual quiz set the template for the first Landmark Quiz a few years hence, and thereafter for most of the open quizzes in Chennai. Even in the clubby, casual atmosphere of the fortnightly QFI-Chennai meetings, quizzes now come ensconced in PowerPoint presentations, with embedded MP3s, visuals and video clips. A good question is considered one that is not a test of absolute recall or niche knowledge, but rather one that can be logically worked out with the given information, and one whose answer is easily relatable. Quizzers talk often about the pleasure of saying “Aaaah!" after learning the familiar answer to an unfamiliar question, and over the years, Navin has filled his quizzes with such questions and answers.

On stage, Navin is a consummate showman, but he is never showy. From the point of view of a tense participant on stage—a perspective I’ve experienced on more than one occasion—he is the ideal quizmaster. He waits patiently for answers and judges them fairly; he works the audience well, speaks with crystal clarity and brings a wry rather than barbed humour to his craft.

“For every serious quizzer, his or her first Navin Jayakumar quiz remains an unforgettable experience," says Rajen Prabhu, a long-time Chennai quizzer now living in Mumbai. “For all of us on stage, he’s an icon from the world of quizzing." Such hefty praise is won by dint of sheer effort. Navin goes over his questions painstakingly and assembles his presentations with surgical care.

“I remember that the process of setting the Landmark Quiz would always happen during my exams," says Ishwar, freshly out of school and also a keen quizzer, but remembered by many QFI members for attending meetings as a little boy and silently bowling leg spin to himself in the back of the room. “Gautam would come over for quiz dinners, and all the discussions about which question should go where would happen over those dinners."

Only recently, as his practice has swallowed increasing portions of his time, has Navin found it difficult to keep track of the questions being asked in quizzes around the country; the odd repeated question has thus begun to make more frequent cameos in his quizzes. It’s something that Navin willingly acknowledges. “All these questions are asked, and they’re all now available on some mailing list or some website," he says. “And I can’t attend every single quiz after all."

When Memory Banks does compete, it still functions as a formidable machine, combining Navin’s strengths in music, art and cinema with Saranya’s encyclopaedic knowledge of history, literature and mythology. “Saranya Jayakumar is a terrific quizzer, and she knows so much, and she’s held in such high regard," says Vinod Ganesh, who conducts QFI-Chennai’s open quiz every year. “So her encouragement, when we were starting out as novice quizzers, was doubly welcome. She’s always been open to quizzers of any stature, and when we started the QFI-Chennai quiz, she really supported the effort."

Like the QFI-Chennai quiz, there are now multiple other open quizzes, of varying sizes and offering varying rewards, on the bustling Chennai-Bangalore quiz circuit. But Navin Jayakumar’s Landmark Quiz occupies a prime position in the hearts of many Chennai quizzers, if only because it is the quiz we attended as awestruck schoolchildren, the quiz we first grew attached to and dreamt of winning some day.

The glorious thing is, even to those of us who have been fortunate enough to win it, the sensations of attending the quiz never change. We still feel the air to be charged with excitement, and we still rustle nervously in our seats, half-watching the filler video of the George Harrison memorial concert on the big screen as we wait for the prelims to start. And then Navin Jayakumar walks out in his immaculate black bandhgala, the auditorium grows a little darker, and the questions light up the rest of the evening.

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