Friday, March 21, 2014

Why I Hate Helium

This story dates back more than two decades. I was coming to the end of my twelve glorious years at my school. Jack of all trades, master of some. The mastery did not rear its head on the athletics field too much, though I could hit a mean cover drive and defend my stumps with the ferocity and tenacity of Tipu Sultan. I was considered to be among the lot that did well at extra-curricular activities not involving sports. Writing, debating, you know the works. To my horror and I am sure to that of everyone in the school at 7.25 am each morning who heard it, I was also part of the school prayer group that trudged to the principal's office and sang the glory of Goddess Saraswati and the like each morning through a solitary microphone. Quizzing however wasn't one of those activities. In fact, quizzing wasn't an activity at all in my school, the best I can remember. We seemed to have skipped the ability to do simple question and answers in my alma mater. So it came as a complete surprise when my first official quiz was to be not in the school premises or that of another. It was meant to be on the All India Radio. Yes, our good old AIR, of Vividh Bharati and cricket commentaries in Hindi. I don't know how it was arranged, but arranged it was, and me, of the extra-curriculars fame was picked from the three divisions along with my very good friend Mohit to represent the school. Why us? Maybe we could name more states in the Indian Union than others or knew a little more about the basics of physics than others. Or, more importantly, we conveyed the impression that we did.

So, there we were, packed off with our school librarian to the AIR recording studio. I think it was in Prabhadevi. I was expecting a fierce round of competition there. Tough teams from all the top schools in Bombay (which is what it was then). I had fresh memories from a disappointing performance at a Hindi debate competition I had participated in at the Jamnabhai Narsee School. The winner was clearly leagues ahead of me and a lot of the other competitors there. With that in mind and with no experience in quizzing, I wasn't sure how this could ever end well. We waited, and we waited some more and the teams arrived. Correction, a team arrived. It was from the Cannossa High School in Andheri (E). A couple of girls trudged in with their teacher. Was this it? Did the rest just now show up in fear? I was willing to believe that narrative. What's more, of the two girls, one was in the 7th grade. We might as well have collected our prize and gone home.

We were waiting nervously in a lobby waiting to be called inside. A classical singer came out alaap-ing with passion. We were ushered in. A round table awaited us. Microphones were kept there. The quizmaster asked us our names. I dug deep and came out with the heaviest baritone I could manage. Parth Pandya, I said. Can you say it one more time? Parth Pandya. Aah, I see. Welcome.

Now there are two types of quizzes. There is trivia and there is the kind where the question is phrased as a clue. For eg. you could ask the question 'Who is the highest run-getter in the history of test cricket?' or you could ask the question 'Which cricketer born in the great city of Mumbai, was once compared by the great Don to himself and was named after the famous music director S.D. Burman?' The answer to the two would be the same: Sachin Tendulkar. The latter, more refined form of quizzing, wasn't something I was introduced to until I got to my engineering college. This quiz on AIR was just that - trivia. Either you knew or you didn't.

The rounds started and the questions came flying thick and fast. There were some about dinosaurs and some about history, some about geography and some about inventions. The answers came, in fits and starts. Some from us, some from the girls. It was't the cakewalk I was expecting it to be. In a few minutes, we forgot all about the fact that we were recording for the radio or that this was a setting very alien to us. Quizzing, after all, is all about ego. Let no quizzer tell you otherwise. Knowing an answer or cracking a clue gives most of us to that moment of finite glory, and we savor it.

The rounds went on, the figdeting in seats continued, until the quizmaster (or radio personality, or both) told us duly that the last round was coming up. The scores were tied - the contest down to the wire. There were four questions left, and like boxers punching and counter-punching, we took our turns. They got two, we got one. This wasn't happening. We were losing. To a team with a kid two grades lower than us. This was it. The moment of reckoning. The moment where the collective intellect of Bhavans A.H. Wadia High School was to rise spectacularly and save the day. The fingers were on the virtual buzzer (I think it was just raising the hand to get to answer first then) and raring to go. For broke.

"What is the lightest metal?"

"Helium", blurted out an inexperienced quizzer

"No", shouted his partner

The ship had sunk. The gas, though, would have escaped! 

I sank my head in my hands. The battle was lost. In the coming years, I would quiz again. I would win. In quizzes and places far more challenging than this. I would start quiz clubs where I would see others participate in this shared joyous activity. But I came to hate helium from the bottom of my heart that day and it hasn't changed since. The unbearable heaviness of being a quizzer that lost his first quiz thanks to his faith in his eager ears and a gas most foul (well, I'll grant that it is odorless) stays with me till date. Some day, there will be a quiz question with my name on it; I'll go for it because my gut says it is the right answer and the right answer will be Helium. Maybe then, I'll get closure.


Ameya said...

Time will heal (ium) your battle scars

Parth said...

@Ameya: Good one :)

30in2005 said...

Ooh, Ameya beat me to it! I was going to use the old heal(ium) joke. Lovely memory to read though. I often think about the making of us as people, bits and bobs, flotsam of memory that just seems so far away when we are grown ups. Nice to have such clear recollections.

Parth said...

I have realized that for me, some memories are clear as day. I can feel and taste and smell them, as if they happened yesterday. The others, like you correctly termed them, are flotsam