Online : When the smart solvers too are baffled

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K. Narayanan
K. Narayanan

A crossword is a puzzle and that is what it has been to me (for a long time, it was The Hindu Crossword Puzzle, until a design change and readers' comments led to the word "puzzle" being dropped). As News Editor I only ensured that the supply chain was unbroken and that the crossword was in its allotted slot every day (on the last page, till design changes led to its being moved inside, and today it has no fixed page; something that leaves the addicts unhappy). Someone took care of the correctness of what was on the page.

The flow of mail to the Readers' Editor has made me realise how closely the crosswords are scrutinised; how passionate the solvers are about their interest; how vast their knowledge is; and how careful the handlers on the editorial desk have to be. Recently, the Hyderabad city edition of

The Hindu did not that day have the page with the crossword, because of some technical hitch. There was a spate of phone calls and messages in protest. (Since the same page carried the religion column, there was another set of protesters, who also had to be pacified.)

Solvers study the crossword intensively. Despite the care taken, typographical errors do creep in occasionally. While these draw critical comments, readers pounce on fundamental flaws relating to facts or points of view. A recent one was the attribution of a quotation to a wrong poet. I marvelled at the knowledge and alertness of the fault-finder.

More samples of factual errors: the clue was "National language of India" and the answer provided was "Hindi". Following readers' objection, a correction was published. Three months later, the same clue, the same answer and similar protests. Only the correction this time was slightly different; it drew attention to the earlier correction. Clue: "African country, capital of which is Lagos." Nigeria shifted its capital to Abuja a long time ago.

Errors in language (rare) and badly formed clues draw readers' disapproval. Compilers take too many liberties, says one reader, citing, "One sent hurriedly after 40 customers." The answer, "clients", can be got only if it is 150 (CL) and not 40 (XL). Grammar comes in too. Clue: "They all go out dramatically." Solution given: exit omnes. Commented a reader: "exit" is singular, "omnes" is plural; the answer should have been "exeunt omnes". But that will spoil the crossword, so the compiler tries to be amusing! (That the early editions of Shakespeare do have the stage direction "Exit omnes" may be noted.)

The solution "linoleum" for the clue, "Million crumbling about floor covering," had a reader baffled. "Million" and "linoleum" do not match; is it an anagram? How can a clue be so poorly written? "Birds are unable to perched on sign" is unfinished and grammatically incorrect, with wrong numbers (3, 5) of letters given for the answer "canaries," a reader pointed out.

How do such mistakes originate? What is done to check and eliminate them? The daily has four compilers, each contributing six to seven puzzles a month. Most of them stick to a standard set of grids, so that checking is easier. Attempts at variation in the grid lead to problems. The contributed crosswords are checked for clues, answers, interlocking, number of letters, wordplay and so on, by a consultant, and then processed by a sub-editor who has to clear the final product. British papers have a crossword editor who completely revises the compilations. Such expertise is needed for a daily feature scrutinised by a vast readership.

The daily crosswords made their appearance in The Hindu in the early 1970s. (For some time, when there was a shortage of newsprint, the crosswords appeared thrice a week.) The paper had the distinction of being the first to have crosswords compiled by an Indian six days a week. Some other newspapers also had Indian-origin puzzles, but only once a week. The first setter was Admiral R.D. Katari, who took up this task after he retired as the first Indian Chief of the Indian Navy. His creations were admired for excellent craftsmanship; but the composer remained anonymous. It was only in the obituary notice for the Admiral that this role found mention.

The number of compilers has now increased. Besides the main section, the MetroPlus and Friday supplements use The Guardian quick crossword while The Hindu-Magazine takes The Observer (Everyman) crossword, calling it The Hindu Crossword (with a different serial number). To make it easier for the solver, the suggestion has been made that the Sunday puzzle should mention that the solution would appear the following Sunday (MetroPlus on Saturdays announces that the solution will appear on Monday.)

Standards and techniques vary from compiler to compiler. There are also differing standards within one crossword itself. Before publication, the submitted crosswords are checked. Sometimes the clues are not properly worded. Major revisions are referred back to the compiler. If mistakes still occur, the blame lies on those who clear the proofs. Despite our best efforts, they say, this occurs as it happens in other parts of the newspaper. But then, this is an area where pressures of time cannot be an extenuating circumstance. Error-free crosswords are eminently possible and must be ensured.

Among suggestions by readers is that The Hindu should switch over to The Guardian cryptic crossword. While it is a standard, quality crossword, its use will mean the paper losing the distinction of running an original work daily, which it has been doing for decades, in favour of something that may not be exclusive. Another suggestion is that prize crosswords may be published.

(My thanks to C.G. Rishikesh, a former colleague, for the inputs for this column).



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