The Hindu crossword has become more than a collection of clues and grids. DIVYA KUMAR says it has spawned an active online community which discusses every aspect of it

There's something about The Hindu crossword. The neat, unassuming grey-and-white grid tucked away in a corner of the daily paper seems to inspire a particularly passionate brand of devotion, one that cuts across age, gender and geographical barriers, affecting 80-something scientists and 20-something software engineers, former journalists and retired army officers, Chennai-ites and Californians alike.

This isn't your garden-variety enthusiasm. We're talking about the kind that spawns multiple blogs and highly active groups on social networking sites, generates intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis of every clue and composer, and even a statistical study to be published in an international linguistics journal soon.

Colonel Deepak Gopinath (retired), for instance, does The Hindu crossword (let's call it THC as the online enthusiasts do from here on) “every morning without fail.” And by 8.30 a.m., the solutions are up on his blog The Hindu Crossword Corner. Without fail. “I schedule it for 8.30 a.m. though I'm usually done much earlier,” says the Bangalore-based gentleman who begins every morning at 6.45 a.m., as soon as the paper arrives. He adds in his precise way: “I don't put it up sooner to give others a chance to exercise their brain cells.”

For NRI fans such as California-based T.S. Ganesh, the solving actually starts sooner. “We get a time advantage since the crossword gets uploaded online at around 2 a.m. IST when the on-paper solvers back in India are fast asleep,” says the 27-year-old computer engineer, who began the popular THC-solving Orkut group as a masters student back in 2004. “The first post on our Orkut forum appears within an hour or so of THC's appearance online.”

The Orkut forum today has over 1000 members from the U.K., the U.S., Germany, Hong Kong, and, of course, India, and boasts of never having left a single crossword unsolved since the day it began. An added attraction is that three of the five THC ‘composers' (those who create the puzzles everyday) drop by regularly, such as Chennai-based C.G. Rishikesh who's a mentor for the group.

“I post extensively, explaining or commenting on clues, on Orkut and several other websites,” says Rishikesh, a former journalist, who's composed over 600 puzzles for The Hindu. “There's a tremendous interest in THC, and it has grown thanks to the Internet. Now, anyone who doesn't know how to decipher a clue can ask and get explanations online.”

Spawning discussions

But it isn't only about solving the day's puzzle. For instance, regulars on Col. Gopinath's blog often stay on for in-depth discussions on a particular clue or word. (The discussions on these websites can get pretty intense, and they're not always complimentary to the composers either). Friendships end up being formed off-line — Rishikesh recently hung out with a group of die-hard solvers who came to visit him in Chennai. And some solvers branch off into deeper analysis on crosswords in general, as with Shuchismita Upadhyay, owner of the blog Crosswords Unclued that features articles on solving for beginners, polls on different composers and graphs visually analysing different types of clues.

“I found that Orkut had mostly posts on the solutions but nothing much that went in-depth and analysed cryptic puzzles, their clues, etc.,” says the Bangalore-based software engineer from Delhi who's been solving THC for nearly 15 years.

One Chennai-based scientist has taken this love of analysing crosswords to a whole new level — he's done a statistical analysis of puzzles published over10 years (both THC and the Times of India crossword) and written a paper that has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, a major European journal.

“My paper is unusual in that it studies the occurrence of errors in crossword-solving,” says S. Naranan, a retired experimental physicist from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research who has also published papers on statistical linguistics, evolutionary genetics and cryptography. “I've been solving crosswords since 1975 (THC since 1992 when I moved back to Chennai), and I've tabulated my errors for every single puzzle. Over the years, a pattern evolved.”

That pattern, he was fascinated to find, fits the negative binomial distribution pretty perfectly. For the non-math savvy among us, that's the same distribution curve the car insurance industry uses to predict the likelihood of accidents, and marketing whiz-kids use to predict the sale of branded products. Meaning, give Naranan enough data (puzzles you've solved in the past), and he can predict how many errors on average you're likely to make in the future. Cool, huh?

So just what is it about THC that inspires this sort of dedication? Some point to its unique desi roots and style. “The Hindu was the first English newspaper in India to introduce an original crossword composed by an Indian way back in 1971,” says Rishikesh. Shuchismita agrees, saying the “Indian context” of a lot of the clues gives a sense of familiarity that's missing in the British or American crosswords.

For NRIs such as Ganesh, there is a certain “sentimental attachment” to the crossword they grew up doing in India. (Gita Iyer, another U.S.-based fan, describes how her tech-savvy, crossword-crazy family and friends have developed Facebook and iPhone applications for THC to keep solving it, despite having drifted apart geographically).

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. For an increasingly global community, The Hindu crossword is a whole lot more than just a collection of grids and clues.

PHOTO: R. Ravindran

WEB OF WORDS

Col. Gopinath's blog: http://thehinducrosswordcorner.blogspot.com/

Shuchismita's blog: http://www.crosswordunclued.com/

Orkut community: http://www.orkut.co.in/Main#Community.aspx?cmm=770537

THC @ The Hub: http://www.mayyam.com/hub/viewtopic.php?t=13471