My fascination with the number 42 is notorious, legendary, hilarious, reverential, ‘huh?’ – and a bunch of other adjectives depending on whom the person you’re discussing this ‘issue’ with is. A thread on gyaan.in made me LOL at the poor souls who still don’t ‘get’ it, so I decided to write this post to give an explanation as to how all this started.
The ‘42 joke’, in the form we know it, has its origins in the DPS VK Quiz Club. You (if you’re in the Delhi school quizzing / computer symposium circuit) might be surprised to know that DPS Vasant Kunj did not have a quiz club till that year. I spoke to the then Vice Principal, Mrs Rachna Pandit, regarding this issue and she was quite enthusiastic about the idea of starting a quiz club. She had been vice principal at DPS VK a few years before that, then joined DPS Singapore as its Principal and help set-up the fledgling school, then came back and rejoined DPS Vasant Kunj; she’s currently the principal of DPS Maruti Kunj and has overseeing the task of setting it up. Anyway, point is that Mrs Rachna Pandit was a very dynamic leader and teacher who believed in encouraging extra-curricular activities in addition to academics. DPS VK Quiz Club became a reality that year. (And it’s quite satisfying to note that something which started just three years ago has already made a mark in the Delhi school quizzing circle.)
When you start a society from scratch, one of the obvious hurdles you have is to identify talented people and induct them into the club. So what I decided, along with some seniors who were into quizzing, was to conduct an intra-school written quiz to find out who were the good quizzers. We, the ‘initial’ group of people, put up posters all over school and went around class-to-class urging those interested to turn up the intra. The first stage was online, following which we called around 50-odd students for the written intra.
Now, the paper was a pretty long one – and at the end I put in as a joke ‘What is the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything?’ It was an obvious joke for anyone who was aware of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It wasn’t even a score question because it was put in as a joke; didn’t even expect many people to answer it. Hardly anyone got it ‘right’. Instead, there were these weird answer like ‘Buddha’s eight-fold path’ and ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Getting high on pot‘ and whatnot. I found it quite amusing, and when I announced the answers on a later date I left it as a mysterious ‘42‘ and nothing more. I eventually got around to explaining what the joke was all about to those who were inducted.
(I’m glad that that year we found quite a few dedicated and talented members. DPS Vasant Kunj went from lurking around in the peripheries of the quizzing scene to a group that today is one of the strongest competitors out there. An institution of spotting new talent, conducting regular quizzes, et al which was set up when the quiz club became an official society of the school helped immensely. More than anything it provides a platform for quizzers to get to know each and help in making teams for events.)
Code Warriors were better off, because there had been a few seniors in earlier batches who were Hitchhiker’s fans but by 2006 there weren’t many contemporary fans left. My ‘mission’ to continue to confuse people continued there, and the mystic ‘42‘ that is associated with the Code Warriors was born. In previous years, the Code Warriors used to shout ‘Kevin Baba ki jai’ when getting off the school bus before an event (Kevin Mitnick was our unofficial official mascot back then); soon, that changed to a battle-cry of “Forty Two!”. It was fun because hardly anyone understood, including any other participating teams, accompanying school teacher – anyone within earshot.
On the rare occasions when I attended classes, I worked on spreading the ‘42 joke’ in the classroom. Put on my best poker face and told a few of the studious types that ‘42‘ was the Answer, and that a scientifically proven theory demonstrated that every complex mathematical equation could be reduced to that number. To this day, I believe there are a few FIITJEE / VMC students on this planet whom I’ve convinced – seriously – that it’s the answer. They’re probably trying to explain to an exasperated professor the same ‘fact’.
The reason why it was so funny is because you can say it with a straight face and convince gullible people that it might be true, or at the very least irritate the heck out of everyone else as they try to figure out what on earth is going on. Even in the quizzing / computer symposium circuit I found that hardly anyone had read Adams or even if they had heard about the Answer somewhere, they didn’t know much about it.
I was quiz club vice president in 11th, and when I became the Code Warriors president in 12th the 42 obsession kicked into high gear. It became something of an in-joke which confused our competitors and a battle-cry which we could rally around and have a good laugh about. Like Da Vinci setting up a canvas for a Dan Brown novel we inserted references to 42 at every event we could. In quiz events, a ‘Forty Two’ was our equivalent to ‘Shivender P Singh’ that threw quizmasters off-balance quite effectively. And when time came for Code Wars 2007, the heavens burst upon with peals of Hallelujah as practically each and every event paid homage to the greatest writer that ever walked on this planet.
The thing is, the joke never dies. In every quiz I worked on – since the first ever DPS VK Quiz Club intra – I put in a reference to h2g2 in some form or the other as a joke. I did the same in Code Wars 2008. The last question in the quiz intra was “What do you get when you multiply six by nine?” – a joke which you’d easily get if you kept in mind that a) it was the last question in the quiz and was specifically announced that it won’t be marked b) if you’ve read h2g2 the joke is obvious c) goddammit dude remember who the person who has set the paper is! A lot of people whom I know hadn’t read the h2g2 series had done so after so many years of CW repeating it everywhere, so I expected everyone to get this. Just a handful of teams did! I found this quite surprising, and with teams scoring low, not getting ‘starred’ question and with quite a few teams tied at the same score I decided to factor in last question as a tie-breaker. Easily helped in eliminating a lot of teams from the running. Particularly tragic was New Era Public School’s case, because I expected Prateek Vijayavargia to write 42 – but he didn’t (he wrote 54 instead). I really felt bad for him, but it’s a little funny at the same time.
Hope that clears up those ‘doubts’ people have been asking. It’s a PJ whose cornerstone lies in the fact that 60% of those who hear it don’t know what it’s about and start coming up with funny (to us!) interpretations, and the 40% who understand the joke get pissed off hearing it so often (which is the hallmark of a good PJ). And – I’m seriously, you guys – 42 is a nice number that you can take home and show to your family, but 24 isn’t. 42 is a number people remember too, although as a time has shown many don’t.
(By the time I graduated from school, even teachers – at least the ones in the computer department – were in on the 42 PJ. And they joined in in chanting the Holy Number.)