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Power of a Question Mark

Power of a Question Mark

The two medicos in the quiz competition

Question A hilarious tale of two medicos and a slice of luck in a quiz competition in Digboi

Ask any medico and he will tell you that fourth semester is the best time in a medico’s graduation period. In the first 18 months where the subjects of Anatomy, Biochemistry and Physiology have taken everything from you after a memorable ragging tenure, clearing your first professional MBBS exam is a big achievement. This is the time to relax and reflect on the inescapable prison term which is going to get only so interesting. Between classes and clinics and the newfound  senior status, it is an ethereal feeling which comes only once in a doctor’s life.

Clearing Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry is like reaching the base camp if you are climbing Everest. Slowly you put your heart and soul into some subjects which promise to be interesting. There is Forensic Medicine which makes you feel you’re a detective and a lawyer hidden behind that white coat. Community medicine gives you unlimited power of a sanitary inspector. Pathology and microbiology finally push that budding scientist in you as you distinguish between microbes with microscopes, itching to stake a claim to be remembered for posterity. Pharmacology is another subject where you need to learn all about drugs, and have an idea on alcohol and recreation drugs which you boast about with your non medico friends. Amidst those encouraging ideas, one fine weekend morning, I decided to pay my genius classmate from Assam Medical College, the famous Shivkumar a much needed visit at his humble dwelling in Naliapool, Dibrugarh.

Shiv was all excited about an upcoming quiz competition in Digboi – an annual affair organised by a famous club, and boasted a decent sum as prize money.

He was looking for a partner but the intelligent guys had deserted him to make separate pairs of teams of two. Many complained about his odd behaviour and unkempt countenance. On questioning about the rumours, he gently replied that he had started behaving like a scientist!

The closest I could relate to those days was Professor Shanku, and Shivkumar had an uncanny resemblance with him after a bout of typhoid, which made him lose his hair and age a few years. He thought he resembled a young Einstein simply because we didn’t have a picture of a young Einstein to challenge his claim.

His dwellings could be described then as environment friendly. The smells emanating from the room would make a sewer resemble a perfume factory. His love of flora and fauna was evident as I noticed creepers and weeds growing in a corner of the room and mould behind the skyscraper of well thumbed medical textbooks. A gentle tug at the lab coat and other items of his 1970s wardrobe, which hung from a rope (which was once surely used to tether the cows of the landlord) across the room, revealed flies and mosquitoes while a couple of rats scurried towards the south east corner of the room where unwashed utensils from last week’s dinner were kept.

As I tried to lift the clumsily folded mosquito net, I disturbed a crow’s nest with a couple of eggs smashed and Einstein Shivkumar sneezed like an abominable snowman, the remnants of the window panes rattling to the near ultrasonic frequency of his nasal outburst. But Shivkumar, oblivious to the surroundings was deep inside books on quiz which he had borrowed from a civil services aspirant a few doors away.

Shivkumar offered to make me his quizzing partner. I replied I was not the intelligent partner he wanted as a team mate and he could lose his credibility as a top notch quiz competitor, a reputation he had meticulously acquired over the years.

But Shiv was adamant and brushed my fears aside and asked me to memorize a certain book on a BBC quiz show. He said that a hundred odd teams would be participating and the top four teams would be rewarded with a good amount as prize money and a qualification for the next round.

Many professional quizzers would be present but we were good enough to compete. I was not so sure but Shivkumar put me in a bind after he assured me he would take care of everything. I never doubted his abilities but didn’t want to be remembered as the one who finished Shivkumar’s fledgling quiz career. Reluctantly, I promised to memorize every detail of the book. Mind you, it was the late nineties and Wikipedia’s parents were yet to meet.

I hurriedly left his abode and discarded my clothes outside once I reached my rooms. They were promptly shed in a bucket of hot water and detergent while I took a cleansing bath before entering my rooms. I smelt camphor for a good 15 minutes and when finally satisfied that I wouldn’t catch any disease from Shivkumar, took out the book from a plastic packet and read it cover to cover.

The following morning we ran and caught the local train plying from Dibrugarh to Ledo from an unscheduled stop in Naliapool. We never heard of tickets being demanded on trains in these parts from decent people like us and glared at anyone who flaunted their reservation status.

Shivkumar was wearing a coat which I had seen in a second hand market near the cemetery rumoured to be removed from corpses in coffins resting in their allotted places.

His pin stripe trousers, white canvas shoes, carbon frame specs and stained teeth didn’t exactly add credibility to the genius brain at work. He was chewing paan with zarda and had forgotten to take his bath that morning.

In fact, I later learned that he hadn’t bathed since he suffered a cat bite three weeks ago and he was on some medicines apparently not prescribed by a qualified doctor. I decided to maintain social distance and relaxed only after he drank milk from a tender coconut through a straw, letting out a satisfying belch. I had finished reading about rabies just the other day.

We reached Digboi just in time for the prelims and Shivkumar answered all the questions with relative ease. He continued his good form in the elimination rounds and needless to say, we qualified for the finals, the first of many prestigious ones to come in our next few years of quizzing career.

The others who had stayed away from Shivkumar looked at me with jealous eyes even as I grinned from ear to ear, satisfied at having guaranteed an earning of Rs 2000 for myself, a princely sum back then. The final round was scheduled in the evening with six teams in the fray and it would be telecast live. The quiz master had taken a liking to Shivkumar for his persona and predicted an entertaining round in the evening.

Earlier as we had sat for the prelims, all teams were instructed to give a name for their respective teams. There was going to be a prize for the team with the best name. Being a tournament sponsored by the cash rich oil companies and tea gardens, even this had a hefty prize money.

There were many names taken by different pairs of teams like, ‘the three musketeers ‘ for example, even as each team was allowed only two members. There was the Brahmaputra Boys, the Kaziranga girls and the BARAK twins. Shivkumar was getting panicky as all he could come up with was Black Label, Thunderbolt, Asia 72 or the Charms guys – hardly the ideal or respectable nomenclature for a quizzing team.

I was not in the mood for some more games, but felt as medicos from a reputed institution should come up with a unique name. I looked at Shivkumar, his face flushed, his stained teeth gritted, his right fist slamming on his left palm and a strand of hair falling over his bald pate, asking a question as to where the other hair have gone.

I looked at my reflection in his carbon frame glasses asking myself what I was doing with a genius and at the last gong, without a word ran upto the stage and gave our team a name without discussing it with my illustrious unkempt partner.

He repeatedly asked me but I wouldn’t reveal what I had said. The names had gone for the audience polls as well as to the club members.

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The evening came and went and we fought well.. Really well…Shiv was cross with me as I answered two questions wrongly in the buzzer round which relegated us to the 4th place. I was satisfied as we had won good prize money anyway and qualified for a prestigious zonal quiz. Then came the announcement that the prize for the team with the best name had multiple sponsors and it totalled more than what the first team had won.

I was cursing myself as I had been too casual to name it. I had just drawn a sign on the piece of the paper allotted to us, our names written in advance by the organisers in the space at the top of the sheet, out of sheer frustration and nothing else, while submitting the name.

We started to gather our things as the announcer was reading out the name of the sponsors. The prize was announced and Shivkumar laughed that a crazy team named Question Mark depicted only with a sign was selected. He stopped laughing when our names were announced.

Digboi voted unanimously for ‘Question Mark’ and it was the one with the best title. I let out a whistle that was higher in decibel count than the diesel train engine and leapt onto a gaping Shivkumar and stood dangling in his arms even as the team named Kaliabor Kangaroos looked at us with disgust.

I revealed to the organisers that I had specifically selected the name and since the organisers had high IQ, they recognized the sign and voted in our favour. It was another thing that I felt silly participating in such a contest and had left it blank, only to make a‘?’sign to denote a lack of idea.

Still, Rs. 10,000 was a big amount those days!


Illustration by Sid Ghosh

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