BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA
The tragic news of demise of Mr. Neil O’Brien was received with disbelief when I first read on the social media feed and then a pall gloom of grief and nostalgia descended. Media went to town with his obituary describing him as icon of Indian quizzing and tributes started pouring in, but for my generation of Kolkata schoolgoers Mr. Neil O’Brien meant much more than a quizzing icon but an embodiment of culture, education, intellectual sophistication and a special brand of Kolkata cosmopolitanism. An inspirational role-model to be emulated for some us who fell in love with the English language early on in our teenage years many of us can fondly recollect his speeches at school ceremonies.
Personally I had the privilege of attending an Anglo-Indian school, as a matter of fact one of the oldest established in India. For me personally Mr. Neil O’Brien’s name would be forever etched in my memory as someone who awarded me my only ever class rank prize at the annual school prize distribution ceremony; just to explain during our student days we were awarded prizes based on our ranks in class computed by the aggregate marks. If I recollect my position was 2nd and the particular class wasn’t really competitive and most of us were not known for our academic rigour though we had some very interesting fun times. This was the last year in my school and was getting ready to write the first public examination in my life; the ICSE in a few months time. I still recollect distinctly the firm and gentle handshake, affectionate look through those glasses and a gentle tap on the shoulder. The kind words which emanated from this great man were ‘well done young man and you will go a long way and good luck’ broadly since my memory fails to recount the exact one nearly 30 years later. I descended from the stage with a certain sense of apprehension about the forthcoming exams and a feeling of inadequacy if I had worked hard enough to deserve this award. Later I was introduced to him as the editor of the School Magazine and he inquired about my experiences and if I wish to pursue a career in writing or journalism wishing me all the very best. The prize distribution was followed by an inspiring speech where Mr. Neil O’Brien spoke about the need for discipline, order and how we should be prepared to take charge of our lives now that we would be venturing into the wider world. This emphasis on discipline looking back in hindsight, having written several exams and passed through few vivas in different parts of the globe was a priceless and most valuable one. As one can imagine we were embarking on a new journey, from the cosseted world of childhood to youth and some of us were poised to leave the world of school uniforms for the laissez-faire college dress. The speech provided us the confidence and was a morale booster for us preparing for this grand ICSE exam.
The name of Mr. Neil O’Brien is inseparable for most of us who loved and followed quizzing. I recollect the anticipation and excitement with which would open the magazine supplement of Telegraph where the quiz section would appear. I do recollect the quizzes were more snippets of information than straightforward questions and answers. This was what I enjoyed most about Mr. O’Brien’s quiz section where he would explain in the answers about the background, context and historical roots of say the word or the answer. I was mentioning to an old school-teacher of mine that Mr. O’Brien’s quiz section were our windows into the wider world in an era where there were no internet, social media, mobile phones or even satellite television, since through my entire school life I grew up with one TV channel. We were quiz fanatics and its difficult to explain today how much it meant for us as teenagers to get that last answer right in a school quiz contest. He was in the mould of most my school teachers and headmasters; stern but fair and rendered discipline with a sense of compassion. Finally on a personal emotional note it is a poignant experience to write the obituary of a gentleman who blessed and wished me for my first debut in ‘writing’ as a young adolescent editor of the school magazine. RIP Mr. Neil O’Brien!! Your presence will be missed and you will be cherished in our memories for years to come!!
Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.