Having been attracted to striped shirts since childhood, one fine day I got drawn to crossword puzzles in newspapers. The cheerful and engaging experience of handling kurukkezhuthu puthir (as it is called in Tamil) encouraged me to start trying out the English ones, and it was a challenge. The black squares seemed to reflect on my ignorance, and the empty white squares appeared tight-lipped. The clues gave me no clue at all for days on end. But I wasn’t about to give up.
Assuming that the correct word was found, I would start filling the empty spaces in a rush, and finally be stunned to find the squares exhausted already when I had two more letters on hand. Oh, I had been misled by the pronunciation of a particular word. I give up, in shame. But the next morning I would find in that day’s newspaper, another crossword. And another challenge. That day my score would exceed 2.
Whether attempting the puzzles or not, it became a fashion for me to hold the crossword page of the newspaper prominently for all eyes to see: genius at work, don’t disturb. Once I was sitting glued to the newspaper at a railway station. The man sitting beside asked how much time I took to solve a grid. I quietly replied: “I take four to five hours, but don’t solve them at all.” He turned the other way, and I also turned the page of the newspaper, before taking a wise decision to quit the place.
It was at a classmate’s house in Coimbatore that the art of solving crossword puzzles started unfolding before me. I spotted an elderly couple effortlessly filling the squares. They explained to me the nuances of clues and the beauty of sentence construction. When you find the word “love”, put O, the husband told me, as it meant zero in the tennis score system. Put “ed” (short term for Editor) for a journalist, “Dr” for a doctor, and so on. When she said “ass”, I quickly replied “fool”, and avoided seeing her smile at me. “Communist” suggests “red” in the required word. “First of” may be to suggest we have to take the first letters of the few words in the clue sentence and evolve the required word. “Differently” will mean jumble the word.
I started loving the hunt, but the chase proved tough. However, more than the urge to take any trophy, I would enjoy the clues themselves. And solving became easier, all of a sudden one evening. “Say love for this coffee” was the clue, and I was holding a hot cup of “Espresso”, evolved from “express” and “O”! “Therefore boxes” were meant for the philosopher Socrates (“So” and “crates” joining). Four-lettered “splendid penalty” was a teaser, but that was ‘fine’ indeed! I patted myself when I dug out ‘treasures’ from the sentence, “having at the centre a sure sign of accumulated wealth.” I learnt what an anagram was: a word created by rearranging the letters in another word, but was excited to find that word being the solution for the clue, “sue is of use”! Elsewhere, “small fish for Mr. Member of Parliament” turned out to be Shrimp (“Shri” and “MP”).
In a village where I was working in a bank, the evenings switched me on to crossword. I had an equally inquisitive person joining the branch as a newcomer, who also liked solving the puzzles. At times, the mad race would go to such an extent that neither would like the other to fill in the squares first. But it provided the opportunity to expand one’s vocabulary and imparted knowledge. He taught me more.
Why do you waste time on this thing, a friend asked me. I replied that it was where I could come across (and down!) new words. But the craze for the crossword had spread through to such an extent that I would skip all other pages of the newspaper and go straight to the crossword puzzle. This meant not bothering to read the headlines on Page 1.
Once I was stunned to read about a wizard who had won a prize in a contest, and he was quoted as saying that he required not more than four minutes to fill any challenging crossword grid. Here I was, holding the newspaper in that village, losing myself completely at its altar, while preparing breakfast or dinner at home. As the scores went high, came the realisation that I should call it a day and concentrate on other parts of the newspaper. But the love and passion would re-emerge whenever I cross the crossword squares.