Typical Chennai Question

Hundreds of students in uniforms shuffle and shift in their seats. Grouped into teams of three — with cheeky names like "Idli, Vadai, Sambar" and "The Three Mistakes Our School Made" — they have just turned in their answers to the preliminary round of the Murugappa Madras Quotient Quiz 2013. With a half hour to kill, they now exchange notes and break into nervous titters belying their confidence. "Winning the big quizzes is more important to some of us than scoring in our annual exams, but my parents and teachers won't like me to say this," says a 15-year-old from DAV School who is savvy enough to request anonymity. "I read four newspapers every day and at least three books a week, cover to cover," he says. "I also spend two hours on the internet researching things of interest to me — world history and religion, for now." Welcome to the world of the quiz enthusiast. The young man, with his wire-frame glasses and spiky hair, is one of thousands in Chennai who spend hours each day poring over esoteric trivia — "Did you know the anaconda gets its name from the Tamil phrase for 'elephant killer'?"— to prepare for the best quizzes hosted in the city year after year.

Chennai, which has, for decades, nourished this intellectual pursuit, is the capital of student quizzes and "open" quizzes in India. The year is punctuated by about a dozen big quizzing events, all of which witness packed houses. Attending one of them is like opening a cabinet of curiosities to discover extraordinary things. Dr Navin Jayakumar says he enjoys evoking this sense of wonder in his audience. One of the city's foremost quiz masters, he conducts the finals of the Landmark Quiz — arguably the most-awaited national open quiz — in Chennai on Independence Day every year. It takes him 60 hours to prepare questions and slides for the event, he says. An eye surgeon, he even devotes the time between seeing patients to his quizzes. Because in a city where audiences readily label styles of quizzing — a question based on a news piece, say about the death of a public personality, is called a "typical Chennai question", or simply, TCQ — any quiz is a tightrope walk. "One must strike a balance between what is called a janta kind of quiz with popular questions and a difficult quiz that will only appeal to hardcore quizzers," he says.

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