Mama Machan Maapilai no longer

This fellow texted me out of the blue.

“You’re hearing this Kaballa news?”
“Utterly Ridiculous!”

I do not know what he is talking about.

“??”
“Whatitees?”

He replies.

“Passed away of leukemia. 30 years of age.”

The “whatitees” seemed utterly frivolous. Utterly.

In all honesty, I thought that he, Kaballa, had won some international quiz or was on the verge of selling his company because, well, in my mind, he is that kind of guy.

The last time I spoke to Kaballa was, say, five years ago, the last time I went to a Landmark Quiz (the first time in quite a few years I was going there.) Spoke, would be an overstatement. I waved to him. He nodded his head. Acknowledgement of the someone from some time in the past who, perhaps, was a peer. Or hovering somewhere around that. Well, that’s what I considered myself. I knew I was kidding myself, of course. He was streets ahead. Always.

Kaballa was this kid you hated. By you, I mean, you who always came up against the chap in the finals of any inter-school culturals. The chap who, like the United sides of yore, had you beat even before you stepped foot into the game. In the mental arithmetic that was “points” and “points remaining”, in a quiz that involved him, it was, in all likelihood, the race to second. Every answer he gave, as expected as it was, was still irritating, unbelievably so. You knew that he would, of course, get it, but that did not diminish the irritation when it happened.

When the finals were announced and there were 6 finalists, there were, realistically, only five. There would be these two, who would always strut about in their checked PSBB shirts. Vasanth, the mild-mannered, nice-talking chap who was always good for a few words before the final. And Kaballa, the chap with the small mop of goofy hair, those dorky glasses, that square jaw, and that sneer that people have — those people who knew they had the beating of you. Arrogant orifice-in-the-backside, one would be inclined to think. Then again, he was that good.

He would maul you. Over and over. And then again. You would be elated when the quizmaster starts off with a question and you know that you are clever enough to have worked it out without even hearing the rest of it. You would excitedly whisper in your partner’s ear. You would look around — proud face et al — to gloat. And then you would realize that it was a counter-clockwise round and that it had to pass through them before coming to you. And you would know that that question was never coming to you. And you would add to your imaginary points tally of how much you would have gotten if only those chaps were not there. There was, of course, the stray question that passed through them and you answered. It was one of those meaningless derby victories when you knew that your rival had romped home with the title and this was the highlight of your season. Those with nothing else derive meaning from these. Small joys.

You just knew that he knew all the answers. And when he did not, you knew that he would keep on shooting random wiki-based trivia about every image in the connect until he worked out the answer. All the while, not in his head but out loud with an impatient “wait da” aimed at the quizmaster when he dared interrupt the flow. You knew that he was making sh*t up as he went along and you would get most annoyed but then again, he got it right. He always did.

I do not confess to know him well. I do not confess to have been in touch with him. Until I got that text today, I do not confess to have even thought about him for years. The last I remember was hearing that he had joined Ramanan in doing something related to quizzing. I was not surprised. This was years ago. Years. Come to think of it, a decade now. I learnt today that he had leukemia. A very aggressive form. I learnt that he was in CMC, Vellore, undergoing chemo. I heard that they stopped the chemo for a day to give his body a rest. I learnt that that was one day too much without the chemo. I do not know much more. I do not know if I want to.

My memory of Kaballa is not of Kaballa. Kaballa, he became. Post school. My memory of him is, well, getting beat, and, striving to beat him, which did not happen, of course, except for the one time when it did. Then again, maybe that never did. I want to believe that we did beat him and Vasanth once. I have a vague recollection, nothing more. My everlasting memory of him would always be the DAV culturals that we hosted when in class XII.

Bounce (my long suffering quiz partner) and I hosted the quiz. We, of course, were determined to put up a terrific show, with some of the best questions the city had seen that year in the quizzing circle. We researched and dug deep. We created 20 questions in the prelims and another 32 (spread over 4 rounds) in the final. We divvied up the questions amongst ourselves. Bounce took one half, I took the other. In the final review, we sat together and went through the question. At the end of every question, we would have one pass criterion for it :

“Would Ramkumar and Vasanth get this?”

Such was the reverence.

Needless to say, the bastards never showed up.

P.S “Mama Machan Maapilai” is the legendary quiz team that was ever-present in the final few of the Landmark, and Odyssey, and the whatnot quizzes that Ramkumar was a part of. I do not, to this day, know if he is the uncle, the brother-in-law, or the groom.

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