February 29, 2020
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Six Feet Under

That's where the esoteric cryptic crossword's headed in the age of instant gratification

Six Feet Under
Over 50 years ago, in a holiday home in London, a blind man asked an Indian to read something out to him. Of all the people he could've asked, he chose the most improbable, perhaps because he couldn't see. It's difficult to imagine Khushwant Singh, sitting like a kind angel and reading out to the blind. But he did exactly that. Day after day. What he was asked to read out was a list of cryptic clues from the crossword. The blind man would then solve them. There was a method this blind man used to crack the clues which was so crooked, the young Khushwant Singh knew he belonged. "I have a crooked mind." The first clue he remembers went like this—Stubborn ancestor with worker (7). The answer was "adamant".

"Adam" is an ancestor. "Ant" is a worker (from the term worker-ant). "Adam" with "ant" is adamant, which is 'stubborn'.

He was hooked. Forever. Till date, he does what is called the 'British' crossword, training his eyes on the grid, the same intent eyes which, in his own admission, stray occasionally towards women, perhaps solving the most cryptic of them.

He's not alone. There's a small Indian world many don't know exists, compulsive-obsessive solvers, peculiar people who consume books, whom details don't escape, some of whom are even curious to know if the water in the sink drains clockwise or anti-clockwise. By interests and attitude, they're a strange flock.

Ask them, "How big is a coffin?" They may tell you, "It's three down and six across." And that's where they are going now. Into the coffin. The number of Indians who do the cryptic (and so, British) crossword is dwindling.

"Just a few years ago," says Singh, "I could pick up the phone and ask some friend what 10 across is. Now I can't. They're dead and many around don't do the cryptic."

Manohar Kher, Tanvi Azmi's father, former actress Usha Kiran's husband, and more interestingly, a professor of anatomy, has written a small booklet to preach the crossword but now he ponders over the slow death. "Somehow, many people aren't interested today."

There are many reasons for this. The obvious is, as usual, the simplest. Cryptic is cryptic. It's not for everybody. There are many kinds of cryptic clues. The solution is very often hidden in the clue. The task, obviously, is to find the code.

It takes a certain inclination to make leisure exactly what it is not. And not many people are willing to do that. "I think it requires some amount of brains," says actress Tanvi Azmi who as a schoolgirl "used to solve the Times of India cryptic in less than 20 minutes".

Mahiyar Goghavala, who compiles Mid-Day's jumbo crossword, says reluctantly, "It requires a certain level. Perhaps you need to be intelligent and well-read. I know youngsters today are highly exposed but I am not sure if they are well-read."

Strangely, he says this sitting in the dim surroundings of a pool parlour he owns, as two young girls keep trying to pocket the coloured balls. With practice, the cueists will eventually succeed. But practice alone doesn't a solver make. It's all seemingly preordained though theoretically, it's said that everyone is born equal.

There are many youngsters in the iits who do the cryptic crossword. These institutes have a culture of doing things that are said to be cerebral. But it's also a kind of community feeling. Any fresher who joins the institute is absorbed by this culture and at the end of the Pink Floydian conveyor belt, after Made in iit is stamped on him, he will play the same cerebral games the herd plays. So, in small pockets like the iits, the cryptic may just be alive for some time.

Like it or not, God is unfair and so, iitians are said to be brilliant at the cryptic. "It's takes a lot of things," says sports writer and famed crossworder Raju Bharathan. "You've to be curious, clever, well-informed, sharp. Sadly, I don't find many people like that these days." At one point, he was associated so much with crosswords that a greeting card on his wedding day read, "Very good luck to both of you without a 'cross' word."

Bharathan doesn't spend much time now on crosswords but there was a time the passion was alive. Once you find an entry into the cryptic world, it's like the Eagles' principle of doom: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.

The attitude of many cryptic crossworders towards quick crosswords may not be very pleasing to an overwhelming majority of the people who do the easier version.

Says Khushwant Singh, "I do The Statesman. I find it very interesting. I used to do the Times of India a couple of years ago, then for some reason, they made it quick. It's a silly crossword now. It's rubbish." Adds Tanvi Azmi, "I find the quick crossword a bit childish, almost a waste of time."

The siege of the quick crossword became possible purely because 'studies' showed that not many people did the cryptic crossword. Viciously enough, as newspapers lean towards the quick grids for more response, they hasten the death of the cryptic world. Urmila Malhotra, a simple housewife who has almost made a living out of winning prizes from cryptic crossword contests, chooses a word to describe how she feels towards quick crosswords: "Contempt." But her world is too small to make a noise. Quick is coming.

Another reason for the impending death of the cryptic crossword may be what Bharathan calls the element of "imperial hangover". Khushwant Singh explains, "Many expressions are very British. I am familiar with them because I have lived there. I won't be surprised if a lot of Indians today are not aware of those expressions."

Goghavala gives an example: "When you see 'railways' in a clue, it (usually) stands for BR, which is British Railways."

Take this clue: Cad rings in railways (4)

Railways is BR. A ring is O-shaped, so rings could be O and O. Rings in BR will be "boor", who is a cad.

A newcomer may not be familiar with such expressions. And a thing that's tougher than most things in life is getting someone to teach you the secrets of the cryptic crossword. Goghavala describes the cryptic solvers as "a closed society". It is full of wonderful people but they're not normal. Most have their own peculiar ways of going about life. When Bharathan wants to look up the dictionary for a word, he just opens the fat book. He is either exactly on the page where the word is or just a few pages off either way. He explains, "It's just that I know how fat my dictionary is. It's simple." Not simple, actually.

It's a bad idea for many crossworders, chiefly in Mumbai, to let the secrets and codes out. There is too much money at stake. Afternoon papers carry up to Rs 1,000 as prize almost everyday. Edwick Fernandes ("Edwick is an anagram of 'wicked'") has made about half a lakh purely through contests. "That's not counting other prizes that are not cash." Lynn Nazareth, a businessman says, "I don't have to buy jeans for another three years. "

People like Nazareth and Fernandes are all for spreading the good word, Fernandes especially, because, "the women in my office love the way I solve the cryptic clues". But they point out that the money factor may be a reason why a greenhorn may not find many gurus. The contest is best when it's not open.

Though the cryptic world's been around for decades, there're many who don't know such a concept exists. For them, a Statesman grid is 'difficult'. They don't know there's a pattern that leads to the solution. Goghavala explains, "A crossword clue, since it contains so many codes, can't afford to be very grammatical always." So, when he compiled his first crossword, he had a strange enemy—the proofreader. "When I saw the paper, I was shocked. The proofreader had 'corrected' all the damn clues. I told him, next time, carry the clues with the 'mistakes'."

Mahiyar is surprised that there are a whole lot of people out there who do not know that cryptic even exists.

In a final analysis, it may not be of earth-shaking importance, it may be a matter in the very periphery of human flippancy, but the truth is that the beautiful world of cryptic solvers in India may just be on its last lap. But right now, there are enough who can crack "Sibling by a sprawling Neem knows what David was to Goliath (7)".

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