Thursday, June 15, 2017


In what an amazing manner the way I read newspapers has changed!
At first, I used to read the news, the editorial, letters to the editor and articles, that order. In my scheme of things, sports pages were worth a mere glance, if at all. And I’d ignore the crossword. Nowadays I barely glance at the headlines before I fold the paper to the crossword page and charge at it! News can wait.
It is all due to a person called Madhusoodan Rao. He introduced me to the charming world of crosswords which I was always apprehensive of.
Rao and I were inmates of the YMCA Hostel on Chowringhee Road, Calcutta in the early 1970’s. He used to work in shifts for a multinational and I for a bank. The only time we’d meet each other was at when dining bell chimed on Sundays.
Sundays were meant for lazing around. One such forenoon, after a late breakfast, I ambled into Rao’s room and found him engrossed in an instalment of The Times crossword in The Statesman. I thought I’d let him be and explore other rooms. That was when he asked me: ‘You’d know: St Francis of … … what? Six letters.’
This is one question I had the answer to. The exercise books I used in my school used to be made at the Francis of Assisi Press. I supplied the answer. Mumbling a quick ‘Thanks’, Rao went back to his puzzle.
I looked at the corresponding clue: ‘St Francis confesses to stupidity (6)’ How do you link Assisi to ‘confession of stupidity’? I asked.
Eyeing me with a hint of disdain, but grateful that I had supplied him the answer, he condescended to explain, ‘Ass is I. Got it?’
It now clicked. And I was intrigued.
He showed me the next clue: ‘Vehicle races to pink flowers (10)’ and confidently, he put down: carnations.
How did you get that? I was curious.
‘A car is a vehicle; nations are races; and carnations are pink flowers.’
I was floored. Sensing that he had ignited my interest, Rao said, ‘Here is another clue with a flower in it: Ash met a flower (6)’ I was lost.
Help was at hand. ‘Look beyond the obvious,’ Rao advised. ‘It is not always a bloom that is a flower; it can be something that flows … like a river... like the Rhine or the Ganges… or like Thames which is an anagram of ‘ASH MET’.
Now I was hooked. Hooked for life.
Rao taught me the nuances – cryptic clues, anagrams, codes, run-ons, envelopes, kangaroo words, abbreviations, the works.
When I first tried to make sense of cryptic clues, it used to take me a whole forenoon of grappling with synonyms to solve about half the grid. Even that was an accomplishment worth a minor celebration: a bottle of chilled beer at Rallis.
In my infancy as a solver, anagram tries would be scrawled around the crossword grid and all over the white space in large advertisements. Armed with a pencil, an eraser and an enormous amount of determination, I’d sit there, dictionary and thesaurus at hand, wrestling with the compiler’s intellect, as it were.
After three decades of dedicated puzzling, anagrams jump out at you, and it becomes easier to figure out the definition, sort out the elements of the clue, and you learn the indicators: as in algebra, k is the constant, x and y are unknowns. The possibilities of some are endless. Fir instance, C can be carbon, Celsius, Centigrade, century, a musical note or 100! The capital of England is not London, but E which may also be 2.7182818284 …..!
When I started cutting out puzzles to keep me supplied while waiting for the bus or my turn at the ophthalmologist, I realised that I had become an addict. I needed my daily fix of crosswords. A healthy addiction.

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