Where trivia itself can be a lifeline

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A Bombay engineer is preparing for a crucial job interview with Infosys Technologies Ltd., India's leading IT firm. Does he practice talking software code, or bone up on the new dotcom byways?

No. He's up all night in a systematic study of, well, everything - endless quizzing on India's grain production, the role of the euro in France, and which country was once called Formosa. (Taiwan.)

In job interviews, school exams, or status seeking - competition is so thick in billion-footed India that respect, rank, and employment can depend on how vast one's fund of general information is. Urban India is a culture of quizzes, brainteasers, and memorized facts. Trivia is not idle amusement, but tied to the bread and butter of daily life.

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This minutiae mania is being magnified a thousand fold, by a TV show that has become a national phenomenon. "Kaun Banega Crorepati" (Who wants to be a 10 millionaire?) joins mega-film star Amitabh Bachchan, an ox-cart full of money, and a population primed to learn an infinite number of facts - to create the highest TV ratings in Indian history, an estimated 100 million viewers.

Village and city streets empty for "Crorepati." Cinemas alter their timings. New ads for toothpaste and sweets follow a quiz format. Mom and pop bookstands with titles like "Competition Preparation" and "Quiz Master India" set up on the streets. School kids mime Mr. Bachchan's melodramatic style of interrogating his hopeful, perspiring guests. ("Are you sure? Positive? Want more time?").

The next morning, a great egalitarian horde - drivers, laborers, landlords, and stockbrokers - huddles across the land over who won what the night before, and what questions were hardest. (Is Mt. Everest south of New Delhi on the earth's latitude? Yes.)

A spitting image of Regis Philbin

"Crorepati's" format replicates the British game show that became a hit last year in the United States, as well as 36 other countries. Contestants sit on a dazzling plexiglass set ringed by an audience, are asked mildly difficult questions, and can seek assistance from the audience or in a call to a friend.

For India, the new Quiz-geist was reflected in a photo that appeared in national dailies of a newsvendor and school dropout who now sits at his corner reading questions "most likely to be asked on 'Crorepati.' "

Some critics say Crorepati, a word meaning a person with 10 million rupees or more, is another example of money lust that is corroding India's soul four nights a week. They say the show lures middle- and lower-class audiences through unchallenging questions and quick bucks. In a country where the annual per capita income is $465, a crore of rupees ($220,000), is a fortune for most people. Certainly, many viewers are transfixed by a game that awards sums of money they will never see in a life time, and that ask many questions for which they know the answers.

Others say the quiz is waking Indians up to study more. And for some in the upper middle class, the quiz part of the show resonates as much as the lucre. An executive with the Tata Group of Industries and his friends watch "Crorepati" because it reflects "the kind of questions you get in corporate interviews," he confides.

"We have a rigid exam system from early schooling through higher education and job tests that give us an almost maniacal urge to pick up whatever facts we can find," argues Sumir Lal, a World Bank official and social expert in New Delhi. "That's one reason people watch 'Crorepati.' "

South Asians pride themselves on what in modern parlance is called "left brain," or logical and disciplined thinking. As a whole they excel in math, memory skills, and reciting complex patterns. Westerners visiting a bookshop or music store in Delhi are often amazed when clerks know from memory whether a title or disc is in stock. South Asians in the US are known for talent in theoretical physics and software development; their kids do well in spelling bees, and math and chess competitions.

Many Indian parents wake up their kids as early as 4 a.m. to start recitation, memorization, or homework. The first day of school after any holiday begins with a quiz in each class. Child prodigies in math, chess, and reciting verses and rhymes - are highly prized and adulated.

Some analysts say that an emphasis on memory and math is part of the Brahminical legacy in India. High caste Brahminical culture in India long regarded knowledge as the key to power and rule. Brahminical learning stresses memorization of thousands of pages of Sanskrit texts and shlokas, two line couplets from the Hindu Vedas.

Knowledge is power

The proclivity to learn trivia and facts is also a legacy, experts say, of British colonial administrators - who selected out for the best civil service jobs only those who showed wide learning.

State employment comes with lifetime security, and so the various civil-service exams are something that Indians often talk about in the same breath as marriage and children.

"We start preparing for civil service exams two years ahead of time," says Anuj Malhotra, part owner of Bahri Books in Delhi. "We know that on the test, any question can be asked. So we try to learn everything. The tests are geared to the kind of learning you get if you read a newspaper every day."

Together, the Brahmin and British habits have filtered into the modern view of "success" in India, and the idea of "knowledge" as sacrosanct.

For example, the preface to Volume 1 of "The Next Crorepati," one of many such books on sale for 40 rupees ($1) around the city of Delhi, states that "Knowledge is the only factor that is dominant over all other factors in one's personality.... Darwin's famous theory of 'survival of the fittest' holds good... today, one has to compete with millions for everything...."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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