February 22, 2020
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Square Deals

Threatened yes, but the straight hasn't wiped out the cryptic yet

Square Deals
Square Deals
From the British we picked up cricket and crosswords. Cricket is alive enough, but the British crossword, in its pristine cryptic form, looked an endangered species through the years. But it’s survived, at least as a Sunday feature. The Economic Times picked up this genre of crossword even as The Times Of India dumped it.

It was Times’ crossword editor Alan Cash who initiated me into the nuances of the cryptic as an art form. Things were going fine till I had this brainwave of turning the Sunday Cryptic into The Times of India Dual Purpose Crossword. The clues lined up to the left were all cryptic and those on the right were all straight while providing only one square pattern for solving. This proved a fatal error of judgment. For the bona fide cryptic solver naturally never looked at the straight clues while the fringe solver began, ever so languidly, settling for the straight clues, given only the one square in which to work. This, in a sense, has been the straight dilemma facing the cryptic crossword in India over the last three years. The Times of India, following a Features poll, determined that the cryptic had only specialist takers. Out went orders that any crossword carried in the paper should be simple and quick.

Such summary rejection of the cryptic, mind you, was only in the English papers. In the Indian languages, you rewardingly saw (in the train or the bus) a whole new generation of solvers having a go at a cryptic in Marathi, Gujarati and Hindi. For all that, there is now a healthy realisation that the English cryptic is an essential entity of quality weekend journalism. Remember, the thrill of crossword setting lies in being one mental jump ahead of the solver by misleading him into thinking he has the compiler taped. Just when the solver feels he is one up, think up a seven-letter clue such as this one: ‘Worry summed up as 10s + 10n (7). Tumble to Tension being the answer here (TENS + IO+ N)? What about this clue: ‘Craft displaying Mary expecting (7)? The answer is Masonry: MA(son)RY. I crafted a mini 9-letter square (in the same big publishing house) as a quickie designed to wean kids into the puzzle-solving habit. I remember a clue: ‘It’s slightly more than a foot in length (4)’. The answer of course was Shoe.

The idea is to touch the subtleties of the imagination. Any clue framed, and cracked, has to be an experience in shared perceptions. ‘Comediettas’ (its 11 letters rearranged into domesticate) remains the longest anagram I have put together. "May I pinch it?" Cash sought to know from England. To my own wedding invitation, the man sent a note: "The very best to both of you—with never a cross word!" The moment of truth for Cash came when daughter Annalisa dismissed dad as "An old square"!

Where the cryptic in India lost out was in remaining grooved in its British India frame for much longer than was viable. Our compilers failed to envision that the cluing style had to become progressively more India-oriented. That, for Indonesia, the clue could be: ‘One’s in India, yet out of it’. (ONE’S in INDIA = IND-ONES-IA). Wishful thinking it may be, but the eight letters of the Shiv Sena, do they not re-form into ‘vanishes’? The dynamics of crossword setting have undergone a sea change since the CURIO series was launched in The Times of India during 1953.

As the new millennium arrived, our leading papers arbitrarily decided that the cryptic’s creative lifespan was over. Even something so obvious as ‘Love in its natural surroundings (7)’ was considered too demanding a clue for Beloved. BED is the natural surrounding of LOVE or Be(love)d. Despite the odds against the cryptic crossword today, the resilience of mind and spirit sustaining it in India is such that it has defied every attempt to kill it. The cryptic is back. At least on Sunday.

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