Monday, October 31, 2011


Among the sections that I devote time to in my favourite newspaper after I read the items that interest me and scan the letters to the editor, the second is the crossword puzzle, the first being the SuDoKu. Those who know my weakness for Crosswords often ask me how I solve the cryptic crosswords, the others being straightforward [Like Flower (5) would beg the answer BLOOM.]

I had written a column in The Hindu a few years back summarizing the strategy, which, I would claim, was a modest success, judging by the responses from readers who said they could, by following my tips, solve crossword puzzles rather quickly and easily. The Friday review had carried it for nearly a whole year. When the hard disk of the computer in which I had stored the soft copies crashed, I lost those. Typical of me, I did not keep the cuttings.

I thought I could put together my tips in a different format in this blog.


The first step to improving your crossword solving skills is to choose the right crossword puzzles to practice on! That means choosing puzzles of the right difficulty level for you.

Look at the answers in half a dozen puzzles set by the same cruciverbalist. See who has used the least number of obscure words. For starters, choose puzzles set by her.

Some puzzlers indicate the level of difficulty (Easy, Medium, Hard) but most do not. You must start with a level of difficulty that matches your current skill at solving, one that you can almost solve completely, but not quite. That way you will not give up the attempt, confidence in tatters; instead, you will learn something new with each puzzle. In case you opt for the tougher variety, it may be a good idea to cheat: copy down all the answers DOWN and solve the ACROSS clues (or the other way about).


You should familiarise yourself with these crucial aids to solving crosswords. Happily for us, all cruciverbalists religiously adhere to cluing conventions. Some examples:

The answer is never a part of the clue.

A clue and its answer must agree in number, gender, tense etc. (To take a simple example, if the clue (an anagram) is ‘Changes Later (5)’ and the answer is ALTER, all is not fine; either the clue should be ‘Change Later (5)’ or the clue-answer combination should be ‘Changes staler (6)’ and ALTERs. Got it?

If the clue contains an abbreviation, the answer too would. For instance, the answer to the clue ‘UK currency (3)’ would be STG.

If the clue contains the first name of a (famous) person, the answer too would. ‘The man in Indira’s life (6)’ would be FIROZE rather than GANDHI. Ditto about surnames.

If the clue contains a foreign word, name or place, the answer is from the language spoken there. Example: MANANA is the answer to ‘Tomorrow in Spain (6)’.

A clue within quotes implies that it is something said, rather than the literal meaning. As the clue ‘Fine sorrow’, not ‘Bad Joy!’ (4,5) would mean GOOD GRIEF.

A devious clue often ends in a question mark. As in ‘Canteen in disarray? (4)’ = MESS.


There are some ‘grid-friendly’ but obscure words - like ETUI (a French sewing case) - which tend to appear frequently in crosswords. Not many people are likely to know these words before seeing them in crosswords. Here’s another: ‘Boredom (5)’ = ENNUI, which most would be familiar with. The sooner you master them, the better. Accomplished Scrabble-players have an advantage in this department.

Common words like ARE [The clue would be ‘French Area measurement (3)’], IDEA [Clue: The thought of the aide (4)] or SMS also belong to this category.

There is no shortcut to master crosswordese: you will absorb it in time, through osmosis.


I think it was Bobby Fischer (or was it John McEnroe?) who said that the match is played in the mind. It is true as much of Crosswords as it is of Tennis and Chess. The psychological aspects of crossword solving are important.

An unyielding clue means that you are not looking at it from the correct perspective. View it differently. Maybe the word ‘works’ in the clue is a noun, not a verb. Or the word ‘Murder’ has been used to mean not ‘manslaughter’, but a ‘collection of crows’! Maybe you thought the word ‘conductor’ refers to the ‘orchestra’, but what the clever cruciverbalist had in mind was ‘electricity’ (or a ‘bus’!).

Remember that a word (or a short series of words) can be read in different ways. Like, the answer to ‘More level praise (7)’ is FLATTER and that to ‘Despot at Oregon finds a starchy tuber (6)’ is POTATO.

Remember that the eraser that the pencil-maker has thoughtfully provided at the tip of the pencil is for making corrections. You may find that the N in the NAIL that you have written instead of TAIL is causing problems. If you encounter trouble, revisit your answers and satisfy that the answers you thought are right are indeed so.

If you have a hunch that ‘This is the word’, you are perhaps right! Pencil that in. If you are stuck with a clue, leave it and go to another clue. If you are stuck with a puzzle, leave it, take walk or read a book and return to the puzzle.

If you complain that these tips are too general, you have reason to. The nitty-gritty of solving would take up a book. Maybe I’ll write it one of these days!

Friday, July 15, 2011


The place: St Andrew’s Auditorium, Bandra, Mumbai.

The Date: 1 May, 2011.

The event: The Landmark Quiz.

The question: What is common to WW II, Utah, Mulberry, Omaha, Leonard Dawe, Neptune and Overlord?

The auditorium being small, no spectators/audience was welcome: entry to the event was reserved exclusively for the participating teams numbering well over 100, consisting mostly of youngsters. We (my wife and I) got over the technical hitch by registering ourselves as a team and sneaked in. To give the credit where it is due, the idea was not ours: knowing our interest in the area, our son Gautam, who was a part of the corporate team, got us registered as a team. ‘If you do not get past the elimination round, you can sit back and enjoy the event,’ he said, his eyes twinkling.

The elimination was a through a written round. As the volunteers distributed the answer sheets, the quizmaster Dr Naveen Jayakumar said: Do not write an essay. All I am looking for is an operative word. If that word is present in your answer, you get credit; if not, you get zilch. Like, if the question is ‘What is the chemical in the blue diamond-shaped pills with the word of the manufacturer engraved on one side and the dose of that pill in milligrams on the other?’ I am looking for the word ‘Sildenafil Citrate’. Answers like ‘Viagra’ or ‘Pfizer’ or the condition it addresses are not valid.

The question ‘What is common to WW II, Utah, Mulberry, Omaha, Leonard Dawe, Neptune and Overlord?’ was part of that round. I quickly jotted down the answer. ‘How do you know?’ my wife whispered? I said, ‘Hush! Thereby hangs a tale.’

I had heard this interesting story in my schooldays but the minutiae had been swept away from my memory by the efflux of Time. The question brought it all back.

This happened during the days of the II World War. Though the newspapers consisted of only a few pages, they were at very popular because people were eager to know what was happening in other parts of the world.

But it wasn’t just the news that was people looked for in the daily newspapers; there were other matters of interest. Nearly all newspapers had crossword puzzles in them and they were very popular as they helped fill in the hours spent in constant fear of attacks or waiting for buses and trains.

The Daily Telegraph was one of the popular newspapers of the time. So was its crossword puzzle.

In January 1943, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D Roosevelt met and agreed that the future of the war must include an invasion of northwest Europe or a ‘return to the Continent’. Churchill himself christened the assault: Operation Overlord it would be. After extensive research, it was decided that the sheltered Normandy coastline with its wide sandy beaches presented the best option for the surprise attack that was to be the D-Day landings. Planning for the invasion started almost immediately.

The US General Dwight D Eisenhower was made overall commander of Operation Overlord in December 1943, with the British hero General Bernard Law Montgomery assuming control of ground troops. It was in early May 1944 that Eisenhower decided that D-Day would fall on 5th June 1944.

A huge security blanket had been thrown over all aspects of the operation, including the place and exact date of the landings, in order to maximise the element of surprise and minimise casualties. One US major-general was even demoted and sent home for simply speculating at a cocktail party on the date of the invasion.

Some members of MI5, Britain’s counter-espionage service were whiling away their spare moments in May 1944 doing the Telegraph Crossword. They noticed that a clue was ‘One of the USA’ and the answer turned out to be Utah. The answer to another clue was Omaha. Two other answers that appeared in the series were Mulberry and Neptune. There was a clue about a ‘Big-Wig’ too.

What about it? Nothing, except that Utah and Omaha were the code-names given by the Allies to the beaches in Normandy where the American Forces were to land on D-Day. And Mulberry was the name of the floating harbour that was to be towed across the Channel to accommodate the supply ships of the invasion force. Neptune was the code-name for the naval support for the operation. And to cap it all, the answer to the clue that involved the word ‘Big-Wig’ was Overlord, the code-name given for the entire operation!

Imagine their consternation! The vital code-names that had been adopted to hide the mightiest sea-borne assault of all time had appeared in the crossword! Alarm bells rang throughout MI5. Was the crossword being used to tip off the enemy?

The needle of suspicion naturally pointed to the compiler of the crossword. It was a 54-year old teacher named Leonard Dawe. Two officers were sent immediately to Leatherhead in Surrey where he lived. Mr Dawe was known to be a disciplinarian and a man of extremely high principle. None could imagine that a person like him would be involved in such activity. But the officers could not leave anything to chance. Why, the officers demanded to know, had he chosen theses five words within his crossword solutions?

‘Why not?’ was Mr Dawe’s indignant reply. Was there a law against choosing whatever words he liked?

MI5 would have none of it. Mr Dawe had to go to extreme lengths to convince them that he had no knowledge of the coming D-Day invasion. The secret police eventually were convinced of Dawe’s honesty. His crossword solutions, it appeared, were perhaps just another of life’s astonishing coincidences!

Some fascinating facts were later revealed which indicate that the solutions were perhaps, after all, not simply astonishing coincidences! Mr Dawe had for some time been the Headmaster of Strand School. He used to compile crossword puzzles for the Daily Telegraph. It was often his practice to call in his students and pick their brains for words for inclusion in the puzzle. At that time the US Forces were liberally strewn through Surrey, particularly in the Epsom area. The boys heard these code-words being bandied about by the GIs and had innocently passed them on to their teacher.

So, now you know the answer to the quiz question.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


A quiz question on Current affairs. Who is the current chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s News International? Need a clue? How about this: Confused Reebok barks ‘ho’ (7, 6)?

The cover page of the edition of the News of the World (NoW) that came out on the first Sunday of this month said ‘Thank You & Goodbye’, for it was the last rendition of the tabloid.

The newspaper might have been called many things over its 168-year-history, but 'subtle' was probably not one of the adjectives it was described by. For about a week, the tabloid had been in the eye of a storm following the allegation that the private eyes hired by them had been hacking thousands of telephones. NoW was rocked by revelations that the snooping extended to the telephones of a murdered teenager, victims of London's 7/7 Tube bombings of 2005 and the parents of two murdered schoolgirls.

Rebekah Brooks, editor and CEO of the embattled tabloid, was said to be responsible for the intrusive phone hacking (and alleged pay-offs to police officers to get story tips). She, however, denied any involvement or knowledge of the practice.

James Murdoch, son of the media baron Rupert Murdoch and Chairman of News International which owns the tabloid, referred to the charges and affirmed that the alleged ‘inhuman’ practices had no place in their company. Papa Murdoch flew in from Australia to London overnight to deal with the crisis that had engulfed NoW. He too condemned the phone hacking allegations as ‘deplorable and unacceptable.’ In a statement, James said, ‘Having consulted senior colleagues, I have decided that we must take further decisive action with respect to the paper…This Sunday will be the last issue of the News of the World… Colin Myler will edit the final edition of the paper…’

The staff at the London offices of the paper were shocked. Naturally. You have to live through such a crisis to have a taste of it. Imagine the panic that would grip you if you were to be told that you have no job from the next Monday. The job losses sparked scenes of anger at the paper's headquarters, largely directed at editor Brooks, whose actions, they said, had brought down the paper. Her pleas of innocence were denounced by her former employees. Though all the employees lost their jobs, she kept hers, which only exacerbated their wrath.

Brooks had recognized that the final issue of the tabloid could be used by the roughly 200 journalists facing the prospects of being thrown out of job as a skewer for barbequeing her. Apprehending that they would be on the offensive, the management had warned: ‘No libels or any hidden mocking messages of the chief executive’. Not just that: two very senior and loyal journalists from the Murdoch-owned ‘The Sun’ were brought in to go though every line on every page with a fine toothcomb and ‘sanitise’ the contents. The idea was to spot and remove any jibes directed at Brooks, a confidante of the owners, following the the phone hacking scandal resulting in the newspaper's spectacular demise. They read the paper cover to cover to ensure that soon-to-be-unemployed staffers – most of whom had nothing to do with the phone hacking – did not insert anything inflammatory into any of the articles or op-eds.

But looks like they didn’t do a good job. Or they clearly didn't think to look on the puzzle page. More likely, it turned out that the departing employees of NoW were smarter – and cerebral. The indignant lot sent a parting message of disgust to the former editor in the paper's final edition. They gave vent to all their ire in the crossword puzzle on page 47, splicing some less than obvious jibes and thus did the furious staff have the last laugh. Rebekah Brooks (and indeed the controversy in general) were both clues and answers in the crossword on Sunday. It was loaded with less-than subtle digs at the former editor over her being spared the knife and her decision to cling to her job. They found a way of mocking Brooks one last time.

The latent attacks savaging her resided in the paper's Quickie puzzle, with clues such as ‘Brook’, ‘stink’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘digital protection’ and ‘criminal enterprise’ alluding to Brook’s involvement in the systematic hacking and the events that followed. The choices for the Cryptic (an adjective one wouldn't associate with NoW) Crossword cut even closer to the bone, with clues including ‘mix in prison’, ‘string of recordings’ and ‘will fear new security measure’. The answers included obviously nasty words like ‘tart’, ‘menace’, ‘disaster’, ‘racket’ and ‘stench’. It is said answers like ‘deplored’ and ‘desist’ too reflect the mood of the staff, with a seemingly innocuous word like ‘repast’ being linked to its obscure meaning ‘a meal after a funeral’.

The common answer to the Cryptic Crossword ‘Will fear new security measure’ and the Quickie ‘digital protection’ is ‘firewall’, assumed to be a reference to the staff being blocked from using the internet following the announcement of the paper’s closure. Although the future of the paper’s staff and the financial impact of the closure remain uncertain, the final edition’s crossword page has forever immortalized the staff’s view of Brooks and what they consider to be her failure as the newspaper’s former editor.

The cerebral crew of NoW can gloat over the thought that the last ever crossword will forever contain many a cross word!

Postscript: Those interested in solving the crossword, please copy the image and enlarge. To see the solution to the crossword, please scroll down.



















































In order that I do not spoil the fun, I have used white font: words will appear when you select the table. I hope I'm right! Needless to add, the answers to both the Quickie and the Cryptic versions are the same.

To set the records straight, I have never read NoW. It is just that I was impressed by the deviousness of the staff of NoW and the way they got at the throat of the enemy. Most of this piece, except the solution, has been sourced from elsewhere.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Joe has passed on.

We had been friends since the early 1980’s when met for the first time. Though we lived in the same city for about three years and worked in the same organisation for just about decade, our paths crossed again and again, in New Delhi, Hyderabad and Mumbai as he went job-hopping and I got shunted from state to state.

I had had a taste of Joe's sense of humour even before I actually saw him! On confirmation, Joe was posted as Assistant Accountant in Bombay (Main) branch. So was his batchmate Damodar Menon. They had a letterhead printed jointly with 'Menon & Manimury, Assistant Accountants' emblazoned on it – a la Lovelock & Lewis, or Aiyar & Cherian, Chartered Accountants. I had happened to see this piece of stationery even before I set my eyes on either of the personalities involved.

I still remember a joke narrated by him. A Sardarji was visiting Europe and was intrigued to see people wearing masks and costumes and dancing celebrating Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as part of the Carnival between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. He asked a passer-by what the merriment was about and got the obvious and terse reply, ‘Mardi Gras.’ The turbaned foreigner thought to himself, ‘Ye kaun si gaali hai jo hum nahin jaante? (What is this abusive word I do not know?)’

Joe had a way with kids. As a bachelor, he used to be a regular at our rented house in PTP Nagar, Trivandrum. He got along famously with my son Hari and his playschool-mate Miriam (our colleague and neighbour Kora Ipe's daughter) – both four years old then. These two kids used to call him Joe (no 'uncle'). He used to be so much a part of their lives. A relative who called on us overheard them refer to Joe in their conversation asked them if Joe was a boy who went to the same playschool as they did!

On Sundays, he would join us at home for lunch preceded and succeeded by games of Scrabble. Which reminds of words like SITCOM and QUASAR which were rather new to the language in those days and rare words like SYZYGY that he introduced us to. No prizes for guessing who won the games.

On some of these days, the lunch would be preceded by a glass or two of chilled beer. As Joe popped the bottle and poured the frothy amber liquid into the schooners, Hari would sidle up to him. ‘Pour some for me, Joe,' he would ask, stretching a small glass. Joe would turn stern and say, ‘No. Not for you!’. As Hari continued to plead, explaining, ‘A small glass for the small boy!’ Joe would tell me, ‘We shouldn’t be drinking in the presence of kids.’ He would never smoke in front of children, for he was keen that he should not set a bad example.

During the days I was in regular touch with Joe, he used to smoke, rather heavily. The blood donor's forum which we were a part of approached Joe in their membership drive. Joe joined but cautioned, 'The suction pump would first go "Puff, puff!", drawing the smoke running through my veins before it starts drawing blood!'

During one of the occasions when I saw him for an hour or two in later days, he did not light a cigarette. When asked, he said he had quit smoking, though I suspect he had only reduced the daily quota.

Joe was an avid reader. It was he who introduced me to Sci-Fi and its patron-saints Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. And he tried to inculcate reading habit in kids. We still have what is referred to in our home as Joe’s Alphabet Books that he had gifted to Hari – a set of five volumes from My First Library series brought out by the Readers' Digest in association with Mothercare.

Given the range of books he read, Joe HAD to be a repository of knowledge. And he was a great quizzer. I recall participating in some quizzes either as a partner or as a rival. I used to marvel at the way he used to hazard ‘intelligent guesses’ and score points. I recall as vividly the way my similar attempts at second-guessing would fall flat.

I used to think that a cloud is a cloud is a cloud is a cloud. Till I met Joe, that is. Joe took me through the cirrus, cirrocumulus, cirrostratus, etc to the cumulonimbus and the cumulus. Thanks to Joe, I learnt that what I had all along thought was a red star was in fact a planet, Mars to be exact.

A little-known fact was that Joe was a star-gazer. He had spent many weekends with us. After sunset, he would go up to the terrace with Hari to watch the stars. In a matter of weeks, Hari could identify some constellations like Ursa Major and Sirius. On days Joe was not with us and we went up on the terrace, Hari would draw our attention, ‘Daja, that is Joe Uncle’s star, the..e..r..e..’

It was from Joe that I had my little education in astronomy, that stars are identified by their color, which indicates their temperature based on which they are divided into spectral classes O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, the hottest being O (blue in color) and the coolest stars being M (red). He also told me how to remember it by the mnemonic ‘Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.’

This evening, after the sun sets, I will get onto the terrace and look at the sky. I am sure there will be a new star shining in the blue sky: Joe.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Call of the Cuckoo

I am a happy man today.

A few months back, my cuckoo clock had stopped. Inexplicably. The interiors of our house had been done up and, for a change, I had shifted the cuckoo clock from its original place in the living room and hung it from a nail on the lintel above the French window. And it died. Well, not exactly dead: it had been comatose for over a year and a half. When you give a swing to the pendulum, the clock comes alive for a few minutes and then goes to sleep. I did not know why.

Today it came to life again. All I did was to shift it to its original spot and apply a few drops of oil on the chain to smoothen the movement. Now I know why my cherished asset had folded up. The wind flowing in through the window would meddle with the swing of the pendulum, and cause the movement to stop. In its original position against the feature wall, there is no such intruder.

The cuckoo clock is one of my prized possessions – a souvenir of my trip to Europe in 1997. I was attending a training programme in the Maastricht School of Management in Netherlands and took time off to hop over to Germany. A cruise of the Rhine was one of the highlights of that weekend.

To the north-east of the Rhine Valley in Baden-W├╝rttemberg is the wooded mountain range called Schwarzwald (Literally, the Black Forest). The village Schoenwald here is where cuckoo clocks were first designed in 1737 and are still manufactured and sold. I purchased my ‘original’ cuckoo clock from a shop that called itself ‘Die Uhrenmacher des Schwarzwaldes’ (The Clockmakers of the Black Forest).

The first cuckoo clock I saw was in the study of an uncle. It had Roman numerals and rich ornamentation featuring a chalet with carved leaves, flowers and deer heads with antlers. A boy of ten, I would accompany my grandfather to my uncle’s house, mostly on weekends. As we trudged along the untarred road, I would hope and pray that we would be there about five to ten minutes before a full hour – so that I could see the spectacle of the cuckoo peeping out of the cage and flap its wings.

When grandpa prepared to bid goodbye and it was time to leave, I would plead: ‘After the cuckoo comes out once more, please!’

Even since, it was my desire to own a cuckoo clock. Mine is a poor cousin of the one my uncle had. It has just a one-day movement while my uncle’s boasted of an eight-day movement. My clock has two weights – one for winding the clock and the other for the cuckoo. There were three weights in the version my uncle had, thought for the life of me, I cannot guess why.

As a child, I was fascinated by the contraption and asked my uncle (He was a school headmaster) how it worked. He had no answer. Now I know how. It is a pendulum-driven mechanical (though quartz models have now made the scene) time-piece that tells you the hour using an imitation of the call of the cuckoo. It has an automaton of the bird that appears through a small trap door while the clock is striking. The bird moves while the clock strikes, typically by means of an arm that lifts the back of the carving.

The weights are made of cast iron in a pine cone shape and the ‘cuc-koo’ sound is created by two tiny pipes in the clock, with bellows attached to their tops. The clock's movement activates the bellows to send a puff of air into each pipe alternately when the clock strikes.

Another question I asked my uncle was why the clock face had in place of 4, a IIII instead of IV. This may seem trivial, but have you noticed that in most clock faces with Roman numerals, IIII is often used in place of IV for the 4 o'clock. The answer he gave me was that in was in deference to the wish of Louis XIV that clockmakers opted for this variant.

He added that there was another theory doing the rounds: ‘IV’ is an abbreviation for ‘Jupiter’ since Roman times. (Recall that in INRI, the I’s stand for J and that some of the police stations (Bhowanipore and Lal Bazaar, for instance) in Calcutta still have the words Station Hovse emblazoned on their facades) So they decided to use "IIII" so that their clocks didn't have "1 2 3 GOD 5 6 ..." written on them.

But, recently, I heard a new explanation. Imagine a watch face with roman numerals with IV instead of III. Look at the numerals opposite each other – all of them are in perfect balance, except for the 'heavy' VIII and the 'light' IV. Optical balance can be attained by printing a 'heavy' IIII. This does gel with the theory of visual balance attained by using 10:08 in the advertisement for watches and seems quite plausible.

Someone told me the other day that of late, my blogs tend to be more educative than experiential. He did not add which of the two he preferred. Coming to think of it, he never said he even liked my blog. Is there a message in that?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


The other day, a friend forwarded to me a message, which among other things, said that according to Feng Shui, 2011 is a very auspicious year because October 2011 has 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays and 5 Mondays. This is very rare, the message claimed, as it occurs only once in 823 years. Therefore the Chinese consider it the Year of Moneybags. Those who forward the message to ten people would come by a lot of riches before October 2011, the message assured.

When I was a child, the world war had just ended and India was a nascent nation with little resources and many mouths to feed. Food, clothes, paper, everything was in short supply. In the 1950’s, even calendars were hard to come by. It would often be end- January if not early February by the time the calendar for the new year would reach home.

It was in the era of shortages. At that time, I did not know the Hindi word jugaad which literally means an improvisation necessitated by lack of resources. Had I known that word, those were the days which I would have termed jugaad-days!

My grandfather was great at jugaad. He discovered that the calendar for the month of January in any year is the same as that for the month of May in the preceding year. Naturally, February would be June (minus, of course, the last one/two days) of the previous year. So, till the new year’s calendar arrived, you could make do – jugaad – with the previous year’s!

Later, the bright spark that I was discovered that in leap years, the calendars for January and July are in sync; in non-leap years, it is October that is identical with January.

Now, what do Feng Shui and the Year of Moneybags have to do with jugaad? Be patient, gentle reader. It just occurred to me that as 2011 is not a leap year, the calendars for October and January are identical. If October 2011 has 5 Saturdays, 5 Sundays and 5 Mondays, so must January 2011. And May 2010. Therefore this month of five long weekends is not an unusual feature, I surmised.

How right I was! The entire calendar for 2011 is identical to that of 2005. And 1994. And 1983. And going forward, 2022. And 2033 and six years after that. Each of these must be Years of Moneybags for the Feng Shui-gullible Chinese! Looks like there would be at least one such year every decade, not every 823 years!

So this is clearly a cyber-myth propagated and perpetuated by us who swallow whatever forwards we receive and in turn pass it on.

That reminds me of what quizmasters consider a chestnut. Mr Knowall asks, ‘Why is the time shown in most of the advertisements for watches and clocks 10:08 or near-about?’ The Smart Alec who answers, ‘It commemorates the time of U S President Abraham Lincoln’s death’ is awarded the points. And if your answer is 'Watchmakers in the US were given a tax benefit for displaying 10:08 as the time to commemorate the time of Abraham Lincoln's death', you get bonus points!

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The answer is probably quite simply that it looks better, as the clock has a 'smile' on its face (not just a marketing gimmick, it really does look better than a 'down turned mouth' at 8.20). For aesthetic reasons, one would not like the two hands neither nearly covering each other nor nearly in a straight line. By default, the 10:08 looks pretty good.

Aesthetics apart, it makes eminent practical sense: the hands stay clear of other subsidiary dials. Day/date window are most often are at 3, 6 or 9 and this position does not obstruct them. Most often, the logo of the manufacturer on the face is placed above the centre, and having the hands at 10:08 causes the viewer’s eye to naturally follow to the trough, thus bringing the view right to the trademark. Also, the brand name which is embossed often below the centre, is clearly visible in the 10:08 position.

Another popular quiz question: ‘What is the expansion of the distress call SOS? ‘Save Our Souls’, did you say? Imagine the wireless operation in a sinking ship sending out a distress sign – ‘Save Our Souls’. Very evocative, yes, but absolutely baseless! The fact is that in it is a backronym, not an acronym, in the sense that unlike in acronyms, SOS came first and then the expansion! There are other Imaginative (Imaginary?) expansions too, like ‘Save Our Ship’, ‘Send Out Sailors’ and ‘Survivors on Ship’!

The reality: in Morse code, S (did-did-did) is represented by three dots and O (dah-dah-dah) by three dashes. SOS (did-did-did dah-dah-dah did-did-did) was an easily recognizable signal because of the rhythm of the beat. )

Reverting to Feng Shui, I did not forward that message to ten people: I do not want that pot of gold!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Last month I was in Mumbai for a couple of days. Courtesy the corporate that was playing the host, I was booked in The Taj Mahal Palace & Towers.

The checking in formalities included producing a valid identity, something that was not there when I had stayed at the same hotel in 2004. Must be a measure of precaution introduced after the 26/11 gruesome drama was played out in the hotel, I told myself.

‘Sir, would you mind waiting in the lounge while I get a photocopy of your ID card made?’ the girl smiled.

As I stepped into the lounge, the hostess there offered me a welcome drink, beaming. The fresh lime juice, garnished with mint leaves and rose petals, served in a highball glass with ice cubes, was obviously refreshing on the hot, sultry day.

The girl returned soon with my ID and the key to the room and said, ‘Let me take me to your room, Sir.’ As the lift started its ascent to the 15th floor, she informed me, ‘Your room will be 1505, Sir. It’s a beautiful sea-facing room.’

And that reminded me of another room with a view. This episode was told to me by my friend Suhas Kelkar, manager of a bank branch.

The story is set in the early 1970s. His boss was a man who loved the good things in life – rich food, fine clothes, a game of golf, and the like. Whenever he came to Bombay, he preferred to stay at the five-star Taj, though, according to his service conditions, his entitlement was for a room in a hotel of a lower category. The epicurean that he was, his preference, obviously, was for the sea-facing room.

Like any junior who could not afford to incur the wrath of the boss, Suhas somehow obliged the boss by accommodating this request. I do not know how he met the difference between the bill and the amount the boss was entitled to, but that is not one of our concerns for the present. Let us assume that it was by some sleight of hand which I am not privy to, but the fact is that Suhas kept the boss happy.

Suhas had to, because if he did not oblige the boss, he would find himself posted in Silchar or Gummidipundi, Buland shahar or Vakathanam and a transfer from Bombay was the last thing he wanted.

My friend was at his wit’s end when the boss announced a visit at short notice. It was a Wednesday and boss was arriving on Friday. The test match was on and the Aussies and the English team were in town. The hotel was booked. Not a room to spare even in the neighbouring Hotel Diplomat, leave the upmarket Taj alone.

With no choice left, Suhas booked a room in another hotel, I think, The Classic or The Paradise Hotel, beside the Diplomat. He persuaded the reservation clerk to earmark a sea-facing room for the boss.

Come Friday, Suhas felt jittery as he received the boss in the airport. During the small talk, he brought up the topic of the Test match and prepared the boss for his stay in a hotel other than The Taj. The boss was not too pleased and made no secret of his displeasure.

‘But sir, it is a sea-facing room,’ Suhas tried to assuage the hurt.

Once inside the hotel, he followed the boss who followed the bellboy who led the way, hauling the luggage. The room was on the third floor.

After the bellboy left, the boss growled at my friend, ‘Where is the sea, Mr Kelkar?’

Whereupon Mr Kelkar opened the door to the toilet, climbed on to the throne, and, twisting his neck at an awkward angle, peered through the gap between the leaves of the exhaust fan. Craning his neck further, he spotted a small patch of blue, and with a sense of victory, he announced, ‘There, Sir, the sea is there!’

Thursday, April 14, 2011


My first posting as the head of a bank branch was in 1977. Kannur branch was located in the district headquarters. My home was in a village in the same district. Though it was just about fifteen kilometers away from the town where my branch was situated and it was possible to commute to work, I decided to take up residence in the town.

It turned out to be a luxury because the house was barely 200 meters from the branch and I could walk down home for lunch! The landlord, a retired civil servant, lived in the house in the next plot. His presence was a source of comfort and his graceful wife was good company for the young bride my wife was then.

On Saturday evenings, we would make off to my village and return only on Sunday evenings. That way we had the best of both worlds: urban life on working days and rural in weekends.

Hamza, a stocky ex-serviceman, was a customer of mine. His pension would arrive every month with unerring regularity on the first working day and he would withdraw the whole of it on the same day. Given the demands on his financial resources, the modest fixed deposit he had that represented his terminal benefits were under threat of doing a vanishing trick any moment.

One day I suggested to him that he should try his hand at supplementing his income – maybe he could buy a taxi car. He was still young. Those were the days when India made only two brands of cars and any intending purchaser had to register his intent and wait for, at times, as long as three years. A brand new Ambassador car cost Rs 50,000, and one had to pay Rs 2,500 for registration. Even though he could rustle up that sum, Hamza could not wait that long. His need was more urgent.

One day he came up with the idea of setting up a small scale industry. He would make pickles. Would I give a loan? I helped him with the formalities – registration and some clearances in the District Industries that would entitle him to a subsidy, exemption from sales tax and concessionary interest on loans. I sanctioned a loan of Rs 5,000 and thus was born ‘Perfect Pickles’.

The next Saturday, Bhawani and I locked up the house as usual and boarded the bus to my village. We returned the next evening. A little later, there was a knock at the door. It was Hamza, tired and drenched in sweat, with a bottle of pickle in either hand. They were old Horlicks bottles, with red plastic caps in place of the original the metallic ones. The bottles sported crude-looking but colourful labels with the word ‘Perfect’ spelt as ‘Prefect’!

‘This is from the first batch of pickles from my factory,’ he explained. ‘This is for you, Sir.’

Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) of the Officers’ Service Regulations flashed through my mind: ‘No officer shall demand or accept gifts of any nature, whether in cash or in kind, from a customer of the Bank, whether a depositor or borrower, or any person otherwise associated or has dealings with the Bank.’

I did not want to hurt this simpleton and told him, ‘I don’t care too much for pickles, that too ones where vinegar is an ingredient.’

His face fell. ‘But, sir, there might be someone in the family who would like it …’ he pleaded.

It was then that I recalled proviso (b) to Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) of the Officers’ Service Regulations which read, ‘Nothing contained in Clause 29 Sub clause (iii) supra will prohibit an Officer from receiving gifts of flowers and fruits and articles costing less than Rs 10.’ Glad that I had a straw to clutch at, I relaxed my standards of probity and accepted the jars.

Later in the day, as my wife and I were watering the plants in the garden, my landlord ambled along and told me, ‘This morning, someone had come looking for you.’ A balding, stocky man with a thick moustache. Description of the visitor’s appearance pointed to the fact that it was Hamza. ‘He said that he makes pickles, that you had sanctioned him a loan and that he was carrying a gift for you.’

My landlord was being polite. He was suggesting, without saying so, that the gist Hamza had carried for me was in fact a gratification for the loan I had sanctioned. I had nowhere to hide.

‘I told him you had gone to your village and were expected back only in the evening. He wanted to know where your home was and I told him. Koodali is where you live, right?’

‘That is my where my tarwad (ancestral home) is and several of my relatives live. We have built our home in Chalode, a few kilometers away.’

During our visit the next weekend, my grandmother told me, ‘Soon after you left last Sunday afternoon, someone had come looking for you. He said he was a pickle-maker to whom you had granted a loan. He wanted to gift you two jars of his product. I sent him back to Kannur.’ There was nothing I could do. Even my grandmother had come to know I was a party to the graft!

But then, if my landlord had told Hamza that I lived in Koodali, how did he reach Chalode? Obviously, he had first gone to Koodali, briefed everyone he had met there of his mission before being told that my home was in Chalode. The damage was complete: my reputation as a scamster had spread to the villages of Koodali and Chalode!

I was conspicuous by my absence at the Theyyam in our tarwad that year because I was afraid everyone I would meet there would tell me that they had seen a balding, stocky man with a thick moustache carrying two jars of pickles for me.