Do Indians Just Like Memorizing Stuff?

Here`s a curious op-ed by Ashok Mitra in the Calcutta Telegraph that makes me fear I missed the point of “Slumdog Millionaire.” I assumed that “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” was just a passing fancy in India like it was in America. But, I should have noticed by the fanaticism with which Indians in America approach things like spelling bees that something deeper was going on.

Parlous times, unless well-versed in the culture built around �quiz’ programmes, one would hardly be considered civilized. In one such programme, participants are grilled on their knowledge of the exact length of La Manche, otherwise known as the English Channel: is it 563 or 564 or 565 kilometres? Another �quiz’ wants participants to pick the number of children Queen Victoria bore: six, eleven, or whatever. Yet another demands to know whether the Gettysburg Address was delivered on March 25, 1865 or on February 28, 1860 or on November 1, 1863.

A multiple choice test on the date of the Gettysburg Address is reasonable because you can work it out from the concurrent date of the Battle of Gettysburg and the Fall of Vicksburg, which famously hit the newspapers on July 4, 1863. Of course, that`s a reasonable question for Americans, not for Indians.

A multiple choice test on whether the English Channel is 563, 564, or 565 km long is just stupid for everybody.

Not just in India, but over the entire subcontinent too, a child’s intellectual prowess is being judged by the criterion of his or her ability to cope with frivolities of this nature. How does it matter to the realities of living for children in these former colonial countries if the length of the English Channel is a kilometre more or a kilometre less, or whether the Gettysburg Address was delivered on this particular date in the 1860s? To be well-informed on the number of children that prim woman, Queen Victoria, gave birth to is surely not a matter of life and death, either, for South Asian children circa the first decade of the 21st century. It could not, but it is being made out that it is. A great colonial haze hovers over the post-colonial sky. …

A child’s mind can absorb only so much of information; … In the given social framework, the vacuity of mind amongst the rich influences the roster of daily existence of children belonging to lower echelons. Once, within their circle, it is a matter of pride for sons and daughters of affluent households to know the precise length of La Manche, it becomes essential for children from financially far worse off families too to be equipped with the same load of junk; otherwise they will not be able to survive the competition.

The grand coalition of the creamy layer at home and the diaspora emerged as determinants of Indian culture and civilization. It is terribly important in the context of this nascent, but assertive, cultural milieu that the members of the new generation do not mess up the dates of earthshaking events in the United States of America and Europe.

Okay, but maybe Indians just like memorizing stuff. Maybe they`re just good at it … Remember how well Indian children did on that Wechsler Digit Span test of working memory? You don`t? Well, then you probably aren`t Indian.

But if Indians love historical trivia so much, how come they didn`t write any down when it was happening to them? The Chinese, in contrast, kept records on everything. We know that the Crab Nebula was a supernova that became visible on Earth on July 4, 1054 because Chinese bureaucrats wrote down the exact date they first saw it. One reason Indians ask each other questions about Western historical trivia is because Indian history is so vague. Nobody bothered to write down what had just happened, so Indian history is hard to use as trivia questions, which need precise answers.

I mean, here`s a paragraph from Wikipedia on the origin of the Gupta Empire:

The origins of the Guptas are shrouded in obscurity. The Chinese traveler Yijing(see also Xuanzang) provides the first evidence of the Gupta kingdom in Magadha. He came to north India in 672 CE and heard of Maharaja Sri-Gupta, who built a temple for Chinese pilgrims near Mrigasikhavana who lost their lives in epic battle . I-tsing gives the date for this event merely as `500 years before`. This does not match with other sources and hence we can assume that I-tsing`s computation was a mere guess. Very recently a few scholars have linked Guptas with rulers mentioned in Bhagwatam; however, these things are largely disputed and the idea seems politically motivated and to promote the sale of books written and promoted by some entities.[1]

What the hell kind of trivia questions can you make up out of that? “What year did that Chinese guy visit India who first heard of something or other having to do with the Gupta Empire that was built “500 years before”?”