I am not good at trivia nights, especially American trivia nights. My team is polite enough to invite me every Thursday, but they could do without my knowledge of Asian geography, cricket, and the origin of kite flying. And yet, not doing well at trivia seems like a betrayal of so many things I thought I was good at: storing information and regurgitating it at the drop of a hat, the pride of knowing things about “The West,” and confidently integrating into the English-speaking world.
Storing a high volume of information for a very short period of time is valued in Indian education, so I stored a lot of information about physics, chemistry, and mathematics—for about two years—and then vomited it all out in six hours. I did well, statistically. But it’s not so hard to do well in India, statistically, when the denominator is a huge population of poor people scrambling to get by and the numerator, in this case, me, has the privilege of time and resources. In college, I stored information, wrote finals, and then forgot everything. Graphene was going to be huge, organic photovoltaics were cool for some reasons, and steel strength could be controlled by the temperature you punish it with. Lather, rinse, and repeat.
There was, however, a hierarchy for the English-speaking, upwardly-mobile middle class of India: knowing about folk music of Rajasthan, the state where I lived most of my life, ranked lower than knowing about wine-making areas of France. (You didn’t have to taste it, just know about it). The farther you could anchor your mind from India, the better; the distance a measure of your schooling, worldly upbringing, and a currency of privilege. The steady state of my mind displaced my lived experiences to accommodate learned ones, moving slowly away from where I came from, but not close enough to anywhere else.
Closer in my sphere, my extended family, for example, did exotic brown things that would make a better movie than Kumail Nanjiani’s: one of my uncles married a Chinese woman, settled in Germany, and their kids speak Cantonese, German, English, bits of other European languages, and not Hindi. My other cousins were listening to English music from their father’s record collection before I learned to clean my own poop, army kids who, in ninth grade, knew about the whiskey their father drank, how to say charming pleasantries in English, and how to light up cigarettes. Their house was palatial, tasteful, and monochromatic: light-brown suede sofas, dark-brown mahogany tables, and beige curtains. Rani pink table cloth was a strict no, which is a shame: it would have shown the chai-stain I left for them during all the visits after school.
Being distant from everything Indian was cool, and as younger kids, my elder sister and I were not. We went to see Shahrukh Khan movies, called each other kutti (bitch in Hindi, but not “bitch”), and we liked to drape sarees from our mother’s chiffon dupattas. Cousins, congregating from around the world for the summer ritual of visiting their grandparents, refused to let my sister play with them because she didn’t speak English well (I was too young and probably eating mud). Eventually, we moved to a bigger city, enrolled in catholic schools where nuns left remarks if they caught you speaking in Hindi, and our parents installed the first internet connection in our locality which was allowed as long we were reading in English and listening to English music. The dial-up network racked up a huge bill monthly, but we improved, and it was worth it. And though I struggled in Hindi, my mother was happy with my English score. MTV played in the background and we could contribute to why Britney Spears was having a breakdown. It felt good to know about it.
My brain filed away information in English about English things effortlessly, flowing swiftly and quickly. Learning about my immediate culture and surrounding, on the other hand, felt like the kind of thick honey that took a ladle to stir and settle, sticky and uncomfortable. And so, I read about worlds I wouldn’t visit, while being rootless in the turbulence of my own complex country; I didn’t read a book about Kashmir until I was 19, didn’t listen to Jaipur gharana, named after my hometown, until I was 21, and while I could polish off an English novel in one sitting, it took me an hour to read an op-ed of a Hindi newspaper.
That’s why trivia nights, hosted in a bar tucked away in Pittsburgh, were a betrayal. I didn’t know enough about where I came from and I didn’t know enough about where I was going. I didn’t know about Tobacco Road, or the really old guy still playing baseball, or the American president who had also been on Supreme Court, or the granular details of World War II. I don’t know the real names of front-liners in popular rock bands, just some of the songs and that’s about it. I wasn’t sure if I could answer the questions, if any, on India either – the history of which stretches back to 4th century BC, or about the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who fought in World War II, something I came to know about only a few weeks back. The intersection between trade theory and trivia nights strategy is very little – the theory of comparative advantage – and I, like most countries without any, do what we best can: import what others know (or produce) the best.
But my teammates are fantastic. They remember their AP US History. One of them can draw the entire US map, with states, by hand. They know their rivers and fish and music and soils. I’m happy for them, and the confidence which grounds them to their context and experience. And sometimes I answer the “non-American” stuff– kite flying happened in China due to silk and bamboo, Enceladus is the cooler moon of Saturn (Titan folks can leave), and Sykes-Picot. But most of the times I sit and drink beer. And I guess, that’s okay too.