It's fun, it keeps you engaged and, most important, it sharpens your intellect and communication skills.

The 2006 documentary Wordplay ran with this tagline: “Discover the world that thinks inside the box”. This world, crossword buffs will tell you, is filled with the history of word puzzles, its constructors, its obsessive solvers and participants in the annual crossword competition in Stamford. The film is also about Will Shortz, editor, the New York Times crossword who has a university degree in games, the puzzle's famous followers Bill Clinton and comedian Jon Stewart and tells you that Jon Stewart proposed to his wife through a crossword. Crossworders are quite a community.

For those who leap out of bed, grab the morning paper and rustle the pages to reach the empty grid with clues, crossword-solving is much more than a mere hobby. It's “fun, relaxation and brain sharpening” and affords time to be with yourself. Many will say on oath that the puzzle is educational; chewing on millions of clues increases analytical thinking and clear communication, putting you on a par with those who crack Jeopardy and Mastermind; it turns you into an encyclopaedia on people who are clued about frequently; provides mental exercise that might help delay the onset of Alzheimer's and dementia. At the very least, working at this indoor game allows you the pleasure of playing with the English language. In fact, it should be ‘playing the puzzle' and not ‘working the puzzle' at all.

A challenge

This is a “sport” that promotes the best form of competition – against oneself. Did I take less time today? The challenge starts at the first step and continues till the very end. You set yourself time limits and follow the motto — harder, faster, higher. Obsession? A magnificent one.

Former Economics Professor Lakshmi Venkatasubramaniam takes her daily dose to the beach. I found her muttering “A Walter Scott poem...mmm,” at the quarter page of newspaper in hand, oblivious of the sun and the sea breeze. “I know there is a lake, and there is a lady... got it!” she squealed, and started filling the squares neatly in upper case: LADY OF THE LAKE. Then, “Oh, hello!” she said, looking up. “What are four words for ‘Affectedly elegant behaviour'?”

Mridula, a former English Professor and her comrade-in-crosswords was smiling. “Lakshmi introduced me to The Hindu crossword. I began subscribing for the puzzle page alone, and gradually turned to the other pages as well.” What started as a common interest between them is now a fulfilling friendship, they claim. “We finish solving it together in the evening. There is a definite reason to meet,” said Mridula.

Always a crossword buff, Lakshmi went full-time after retirement in 2004. “Soon after the stay-home phase started, I would join my husband in the front verandah reading the morning paper.” He would go for his walk, she would attack the clues with literary allusions and French words, leaving anagrams to him. Whatever the day's happenings, it began with coffee and crossword. “Remember Jeffery Archer's story about the Oxford don couple? Philippa would buy two copies of the paper, but would solve both. Crossword was a daily ritual for us too.”

Solving crossword puzzles is a beneficial intellectual exercise, insists Lakshmi. Over a period of time you remember the literary allusions and biographical details of famous people. “What I learned in college falls into place when I read the clues.” It takes you on an emotional trip, she said. “You feel good, sad, frustrated, hopeful. When I'm stuck, I take a break. I look forward to the new day and the new edition of the puzzle. It is more than a time-pass, It's a fulfilling, entertaining experience. As someone said, ‘Out of a blank space you create something.'”

Is it cheating to refer to the dictionary or take help from friends/family? Your call. Box fillers aren't all literary pundits — they include computer programmers, car rallyists, writers, editors, teachers and home-makers.

Those who “refer” probably choose speed over “honesty” for satisfaction. They say they learn more. Isn't referring to a dictionary a good thing? It is possible you'll find the word without knowing what it means. Shouldn't you check it out? Solving crosswords is relaxation, not a stress test.

WHAT A FIXATION!

: William and Phillipa, now old and married for many years have an argument over the word 'Whymwham'. Phillipa refuses to recognise it, William challenges her, goes to the college where he teaches, to fetch the OED. Meanwhile Phillipa dies of heart attack. When William comes to know, he shoots himself after leaving a note: “Forgive me, I had to let her know...” Refer “Old Love”, a short story by Jeffrey Archer

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