I must have been around six or seven years old when I met this slim, athletic man with an upright bearing that made him look taller than he was. Uncle Neil was my classmate Andy’s (Andrew Clive) dad and Aunty Joyce’s husband. He was a “Xaverian in good standing”, a well-known ex-student of the Calcutta school, and a prominent member of the Anglo-Indian community. He was also a seriously good runner who routinely won the Fathers’ Race at School Sports.
Some six or seven years later, I discovered quizzing. My school – St Xavier’s Collegiate School, or SXCS – had just won this radio quiz show called the Bournvita Quiz Contest, which led to some of us getting interested in this mindsport. The first quiz I ever watched was held at The Grail Club, which operated out of a annexe to the Park Hotel. It was that strange Calcutta ritual known as an Open Quiz – a quiz where anybody could form teams and participate.
The school team was participating in that one. Francis Groser was the quizmaster and the school (the only non-adult team) was doing well. Quite a few of us were in the audience and cheering the SXCS team on, in much the same fashion that we cheered the school’s hockey and football teams. Groser had prepared a special round on flags as a surprise – and it so happened that one of the SXCS team members – Abhijit Banerjee – knew every flag since the time of Carthage.
The school team swept into the lead and admittedly, the support from the “stands” got a little raucous. A prominent member of the Grail Club, whom I will refer to only as the late “Fishface”, got up and demanded that:
- the school’s supporters be evicted,
- the school team be disqualified because of its noisy supporters, and
- a permanent ban be placed on schools participating in genteel affairs like quizzes.
The SXCS contingent responded to Fishface in much the same way that we responded to bad refereeing in a football match.
Neil was leading the Dalhousie Institute, as he always did, when he wasn't the QM – the Quiz Master. Aunty Joyce was in the audience, as always. She was the first person to stand up and tell Fishface that he was being absurd and unfair to the boys. Neil was the second. He also made calming noises all round in that deep voice. We subsided, Fishface left in high dudgeon, and the quiz carried on, with Aunty Joyce continuing to mutter indignantly on our behalf.
The SXCS won that quiz, mainly due to the flag round. The Dalhousie Institute came second and it was pretty clear even to a newbie that Neil was an extraordinarily good quizzer. If it hadn't been for him and Aunty Joyce on that day, it's quite possible that the SXCS would have been forced out of participation in open quizzes. (It was forced out a few years later, essentially because it embarrassed adult teams by winning. After that, the SXCS quizzed as "Xaverians".)
The Quiz Master
A year or so later, I got into the SXCS team, and experienced Neil's formidable skills as a QM for the first time. The first quiz I ever participated in was a school thing at St James, with Neil as the QM. He rarely asked "flat" questions, which is why his quizzes were so different.
It wasn't necessarily that he dealt in the esoteric. He just framed questions differently, in a manner akin to crossword puzzle clues, tantalising quizzers with little hints and bits of information that had to be put together just so. TS Eliot was a bank clerk who wrote about cats; Gene Tunney was a Shakespearean scholar who boxed.
As a quizzer, he also guessed well, reversing that framing process to fudge his way to answers. It helped that he was knowledgeable about a wide range of things, ranging from sports (boxing, wrestling, poker) and movies, to literature and current affairs. He also had that knack for dredging up something obscure from the back of his mind at just the right moment.
Mind you, he was hidebound when it came to formats. I remember when his eldest son, Derek (Derek Peter), started putting quizzes together with unusual formats. "Dad" was the biggest critic. He hated gimmicks. I remember his shaking his head dismissively at a quiz where Derek told participants to shoot hoops on the basketball court. (He could shoot baskets as well as the next man, perhaps better, but he did not think quizzing and basketball practice mixed).
He would not even consider sensible innovations like flat scoring and infinite bounce. A Neil O'Brien quiz always went the same way. You qualified for a final from a written round, you drew lots, you sat where the lots put you. Direct questions were scored at twice the rate of bonuses, an equal number of rounds went clockwise and anti-clockwise. There was a music round and a visual round.
It was a format that he had ironed out in the late 1960s and he stuck to it. Despite the format's predictable rigidity and its flaws, his trademark Dalhousie Institute Open Quiz and the few occasions where he presided over the Eddie Hyde Memorial as QM, were always among the most eagerly awaited events on the Calcutta quizzing calendar.
In-between the quizzes, I also got to know the man slightly. He was open-hearted and generous in the very best traditions of the Anglo-Indian community. Every quiz at the Dalhousie Institute must have cost him a fortune in drinks since he ended up standing a dozen people at the least. He often donated gift coupons from Oxford University Press (where he was the Managing Director) for quizzes when prizes were running short. In an odd way, that helped shape my literary tastes because OUP used to import Faber, which published modern classics that were otherwise unavailable.
The O'Briens kept open house. Joyce and he and, of course, the boys, spoke pitch-perfect colloquial Bengali and they interacted with pretty much everyone from the local fishmonger to the Vice Chancellor of Jadavpur University. Withal, Neil was always an interesting and entertaining conversationalist, able to find a spin on any subject under the sun.
In-between the quizzes, he ran the Dalhousie Institute, and in-between running the Institute, he ran OUP. He also headed the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education board. He represented his community with distinction in Parliament. He was part of a time when Calcutta was still casually multicultural, with its potpourri of Jews, Armenians and Anglo Indians. In fact, he was one of the very last anchors to my rapidly fading memories of that era.
Actually, Neil Aloysius O'Brien was even taller than he looked. Rest in Peace, Uncle Neil!