A dashing quizmaster: Dilip Kumar Baruah

SHALIM M. HUSSAIN

Dilip Kumar Baruah is no more. He was many things – economist, educationalist, man of letters and a perfect gentleman but for a handful of people in Assam, including me, he will always be remembered as a dashing quizmaster. DKB Sir conducted his first quiz competition in 1967 at Cotton College. He was then a young lecturer of Economics, having joined the department in 1966. He held his last quiz many years after a long career as a professor on 6th January 2017 again at Cotton College, thus marking a golden jubilee of quizzing in the North-East. In his own admission to journalist and quizmaster Dipankar Koushik, Sir conducted between five to six thousand quizzes which included school, college, university and ‘open’ category quizzes. Through all this years he maintained a set of index cards that for many in the quizzing circuit was synonymous with nail-biting excitement. Over time Sir’s quizzing style remained constant – four to five rounds of dry questions and an audio-visual round. As technology evolved, so did Sir’s tools. He started carrying audio and video cassette players to the venue and later upgraded to the DVD and the laptop.

By the time I began attending quizzes in Guwahati in 2004, quizzing had become serious business. The questions were savvier (though usually regurgitated from closely-guarded blogs), the quizmasters were bona-fide performers and the stakes were very high – the prize money for the winners ranged between five thousand and twenty thousand rupees. DKB Sir’s colourful index cards (which he continued to use) were outdated as the projector and Microsoft Powerpoint had changed the layout of quiz questions. Moreover, youngsters who took the game seriously travelled across the state attending quizzes in small towns that had become new centers of quizzing. The anxiety of originality had begun to affect young quizmasters and their search for fresh content made their questions cryptic and esoteric. None of these affected the grand old man who had started it all. He still travelled extensively, repeated questions off his index cards and continued to inspire awe in young men and women who built a sense of identity with quizzing. Amrit Pritam Chetia, civil servant and one of Assam’s finest quizzers says:

And my sense of identification with the fact that I quiz, and the fact that most of the memories I have of my life circle around one quiz or the other, and the knowledge that most of the things I have done to improve myself have been to make myself a better quizzer, mean that, in many ways, Dilip Kumar Barua has had a great influence on my life.

There was something endearing and strangely nostalgic about the questions he asked and the style in which he made his presentations. DKB Sir was always dressed in pressed formals, clean shaved and extremely gentle. In a room full of teenagers and our raging rebelliousness, he brought a touch of class and gravitas. Quizzing was and still is a small sub-culture and like most sub-cultures, it is a means of escaping reality. It is a world where young men and women meet in largely insulated auditoriums and experience the thrill of decoding a question or the heartbreak of being completely off-track. It is a small social clique which invites new stars, venerates veterans and allows a space you can always return to and bring your friends along. On DKB Sir’s passing, social media poured in with tributes from three generations of quizzers – middle-aged men who began quizzing under DKB and later accompanied their children, the mid 20s to mid-thirties group to which I belong and a new generation of teenagers and school-going quizzers who have probably not attended DKB’s quizzes but have known him as a legend.

In 2010 I and my quiz-partner Bhrigu Talukdar visited Sir at his Gauhati University residence for an interview. He talked about growing up in Shillong and attending St Anthony’s and later Delhi University. He mentioned his teachers Amartya Sen, Dr Manmohan Singh and Jagdish Bhagawati and reminisced with fondness the struggles of booking a book by the hour at the Tata Library (Delhi School of Economics). When Sir returned to Cotton College as a lecturer of Economics, the department was so short-staffed that he was constantly engaged, either taking classes or making notes and reading.  ‘I worked so hard that my grandmother, with whom I was staying, remarked, “He is studying so much now, I guess he didn’t study at college at all,” he joked.

Sir’s sense of humour, sometimes genial and sometimes playful is something which all of us who began our quizzing journeys with him can attest to. Manash Pratim Bora who attended his first DKB quiz in 2003 says about responding to a DKB question:

I remember, I answered something really absurd and ridiculous, pat came sir’s response – “you’re quite creative!”, he chuckled for a couple of seconds and moved on to the next group. That’s perhaps the only compliment(?) I ever got from any quizmaster, ever. Even if it wasn’t, for me it was, it still is.’

DKB Sir had an illustrious career besides teaching. He joined as the Joint Director of Assam Administrative Staff College in 1989 before he re-joined Collon College in 1992. After a brief stint as the Principal of Cotton College in 2000, he joined Haflong College as the Principal and retired in 2001. He also served as member of the second Assam State Finance Commission.

Many people criticize that quiz gives only fragmentary knowledge. I don’t agree with this view. Quiz is an introduction to knowledge. It opens the doors of knowledge to students. Besides, it prepares them for other things like appearing for interviews, viva examinations etc. Quiz is a very good game in a way because it encourages students to go home and dig out more information by themselves. And nowadays, quiz has branched out to subject-related quizzes. A quizmaster also has a lot to gain from quizzes, especially while framing questions. It requires the patience of a gold miner, the exploration, examination and cross-examination of facts. I myself would not have ventured into so many fields had it not been for quizzing.

DKB Sir introduced me to a world I didn’t know existed. ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Kamikaze’ meant nothing to me until I attended a DKB quiz. And in a dark auditorium when he asked us to identify a voice, I listened patiently to an old gramophone record of a man screaming something in a foreign language and realized that I had just heard the voice of Adolf Hitler.

(Shalim H Hussain is a researcher and a poet).