Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview: Nitaa Jaggi

[Introductory Post: Interviews with The Hindu Crossword Setters]

Nitaa Jaggi When I approached Nitaa Jaggi for an interview, I was prepared for cold refusal. After all I have not exactly been a fan of her crosswords and have been pretty vocal about it. But to my pleasant surprise, she said yes. I think it is very sporting of her to  interact and answer my questions and I thank her for giving The Hindu Crossword solvers this rare opportunity to hear her side. You may or may not like her cryptic clues, but you cannot help admire the spirit that keeps her undaunted in the face of criticism.

[Answers posted verbatim]

Q1. Great to have you talking with us, Ms. Jaggi. Please tell us about yourself and how you got introduced to crosswords.

Nitaa Jaggi: I was always good in literature during my school days and loved solving puzzles. I indulged in a lot of word games. I got my basic education from one of the best schools in Mumbai - Arya Vidya Mandir, Santacruz. During school days we never had to just write answers directly from the text, always had to use reference material to form an answer. This made me sit in the library for hours together doing up projects as well as it formed the habit of reading. I was always armed with a dictionary and a thesaurus. After school, I did my B.Com from Narsee Monjee College of Commerce& Economics, Mumbai.

Initially I used to attempt the simple quick crosswords appearing in the local dailies. However, I was always fascinated with the cryptics appearing in The Economic Times.

It is a self-taught art, books helped me in constructing cryptics. My first cryptic crossword appeared in DNA newspaper followed by semi-cryptic Information Technology crosswords for Digit IT Magazine and then the cryptics for The Hindu.

Q2: How did you get into setting crosswords for The Hindu?

Nitaa Jaggi: I was approached by Ms. Meena Menon who works for the Mumbai office of The Hindu, to set crosswords for their paper. I think she got my profile thru’ the net. Then I had a talk with the editorial department of the newspaper with regards to my terms and conditions. I was adamant that I would not work without a credit line. This proved beneficial for the other setters also, as they also got credit for their respective crosswords.

Q3: Your credit line in the papers is “Nita Jaggi” at some places, “Nitaa Jaggi” at others. Which is the right way to spell your name?

Nitaa Jaggi: I prefer to write my name as Nitaa Jaggi rather than Nita Jaggi.

Q4: You hold the record of setting the maximum number of crosswords in India. How many have you set, for which publications?

Nitaa Jaggi: I have set approximately 1700 crosswords till date and on various themes namely - Bollywood, Hollywood, sports, food, finance, codeword, quickword, anagrams and cryptics. Currently I construct the Gigantika crossword for Afternoon- Despatch & Courier newspaper, which is published every Wednesday. I also do the finance crossword for the RBI for their In house magazine Without Reserve. Last year I had constructed a 25x25 Finance crossword to commemorate their Platinum Jubilee celebrations. The entire crossword - the words and clues were totally thematic in nature that is pertaining to RBI’s history, growth and policies so far.

Q5: How long have you solved crosswords of the cryptic kind? Which crosswords/setters do you most enjoy solving?

Nitaa Jaggi: Among the Hindu setters, I love to solve Sankalak’s crosswords. I really like his clueing style.

Q6: As you're probably aware, your crosswords in The Hindu are not popular among solvers online. Do you think that the harsh criticism is linked more to your byline than the puzzle, that the same "error" might have been overlooked had the puzzle carried another setter's name? If the crosswords were published anonymously, would the opinions have been more balanced?

Nitaa Jaggi: I am really not bothered about criticism. I take it in a constructive manner. I set cryptics largely keeping the general readers in mind and not the niche section. It’s no use if only a handful of the ‘very intelligent’ section can solve the crosswords, one has to keep the general IQ in mind.

Q7: When you write a clue that doesn't follow the conventional norms of cryptic clues - such as "Refreshments are in a mess (4)" for MEAL, what is the thought process behind it? Is it that to a majority of solvers, the technical aspects will not matter?

Nitaa Jaggi: I have sent my cryptic crosswords to editors abroad and have received their feedback regarding the clues and how to improve them; hence I know that I am on the right track with regards to the construction of clues.

Q8: How important is solvers' feedback for you?

Nitaa Jaggi: Feedback is very important for me and I respect my readers’ views and comments for that. I do see a change in my clueing style over the years as a crossword constructor and I am quite satisfied with the same. One always grows in the thought process also.

Q9: What is your method of setting? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Nitaa Jaggi: I do not set the clues in a sequence. I set it according to the words and I try to use all the clue types in my crossword. At times if I get stuck thinking about a particular clue I go on to the next, but yes I finish one entire crossword and then only get on to the next. I create 40 crosswords a month for different publications.

Q10: You set themed non-cryptic crosswords in other publications. Have you thought of setting themed crosswords for The Hindu?

Nitaa Jaggi: I have actually not thought about setting themed crosswords for The Hindu as I am quite overloaded with work.

Q11: Is crossword setting a natural talent or can it be learnt?

Nitaa Jaggi: I personally feel if one is interested one can really start constructing crosswords. However, one should be dedicated to the profession. I take at least 4-5 hours to make a 15 x 15 crossword.

Q12: How well do the compilers of The Hindu know each other? Do you get to meet and interact, ask each other for a second opinion about a clue?

Nitaa Jaggi: I think so there is a major communication gap between the crossword setters of The Hindu. Being the only woman setter, I feel they lack the skill of communicating.

Q14: Does that make a difference - being a "woman setter"?

Nitaa Jaggi: I feel at times that it is disadvantageous being a woman setter, because some readers do not take woman setters seriously. They feel that how can a woman construct cryptic crosswords. Being based in Mumbai, not many people are into solving cryptics. They prefer the quick and easy to solve kind of crossword. It is just a niche segment who are into cryptics. Hence on a personal level I do not get to interact with readers who are really engrossed into such crosswords, except those on blogs and thru' the net.

Like there was a gentleman from Chennai (a regular solver) who did speak to me on the telephone about my cryptic crosswords. he didn't even know whether 'Nitaa' meant a male or a female.

And the next question directed to me was that how can a woman be intelligent enough to set cryptic crosswords - he was also amazed that setting crosswords was my full time profession and I could actually earn my bread and butter through this profession.

Q15: What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Nitaa Jaggi: Apart from crosswords, I create Wordokus, Sudokus, Plexers, etc. kind of puzzles. No kind of software is used in any of the above puzzles.

Nita Jaggi ArtworkI also paint and create papier mache sculptures. Till date I have had two solo exhibitions and two group exhibitions in Mumbai. I have done my training under the guidance of Anandmohan Naik, a water colour artist from Santiniketan, Kolkata. Over the years I have developed my individual style of painting. Papier Mache sculpture work is again self taught art.

Q16: Please share with us some of your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Nitaa Jaggi: I just know that I am doing pretty well because creating themed crosswords is an art by itself. They are systematic grids filled in with all themed words.

Q17: It has been said that the target audience for your puzzles is people who don't care about the finer details of clues and are not aware of crossword blogs. How do you know that your target audience is happy with your puzzles?

Nitaa Jaggi: I do get my feedback by the editorial division of The Hindu - those are the areas which I take seriously as a benchmark for my crosswords. Every crossword I construct I try and improve myself. The very fact my crosswords are working with the masses proves by itself as I am still constructing cryptics for The Hindu.
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More Setter Interviews:

The last interview of the Hindu Crossword Setters special series will be published next Monday. Stay tuned!

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Clues May Mean When They Say "Nothing"

sweet-fanny-adams

Independent 7598 (Anax): Fight about nothing, having run into girl (6) AFFRAY
FA (nothing) reversed, R (run) in FAY (girl)

Times 23634: Move nothing at all to turn up demons (6) AFRITS
STIR (move) FA (nothing at all), reversed

The clues above equate "nothing" and "nothing at all" with FA. Why?

FA stands for "Fanny Adams". The expression "sweet Fanny Adams" is British naval slang for "nothing at all"; the expression is sometimes shortened to "sweet FA" or "FA".

The phrase has a really gruesome story behind it [link].

Solve These

A few more clues that refer to Fanny Adams/FA. Enjoy solving:

Guardian 24510 (Arachne): Absolutely nothing's insignificant to a serious newspaper - on the contrary (5,1,1)
Guardian 25075 (Orlando): Gangster eliminating Fanny Adams is hard to find (6) S____E
Times 23452: Old linesman from FA introducing short film (4) __ID

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Interview: Neyartha

[Introductory Post: Interviews with The Hindu Crossword Setters]

neyartha-hindu-crossword-interviewHow much of the artist does Art truly reflect? Take the case of Neyartha's crosswords. The offbeat choice of words, the propensity for specialist themes, the clueing style show a compiler with a distinctive scientific temperament, one who likes to blend entertainment with education. Is he really as we infer from his puzzles? Find out as Neyartha talks about himself, his approach to setting and the influences and interests that have shaped his art.

Q1: Welcome, Neyartha. Please tell us about yourself, how you got introduced to crosswords and how you got into setting for The Hindu.

Neyartha: Shuchi, thanks! I am an engineer in my late 20s, based in the United States. Designing and verifying silicon chips is my full time job now, but crosswords have always been a favourite pastime of mine since high school days. The advent of online social networks enabled me to reach out to crossword enthusiasts all around the world. I was in touch with one of the compilers for The Hindu as a fellow enthusiast and we even joked about me joining the compilers panel in the initial days. As many people who solve cryptics and want to move to compiling have realised, setting puzzles is a different ball game altogether. Experience with compiling some college fest puzzles and conducting some cryptic crossword workshops gave me the necessary confidence.

Around the end of 2007, one of the compilers in The Hindu’s panel bid adieu and I was offered an opportunity to fill in. My first puzzle was published on Dec 17, 2007 (The Hindu Crossword 9096). Since then, I have been contributing two puzzles every month (and occasionally, four).

Q2: What does "Neyartha" mean? It is sometimes mistaken to be a woman’s name. Is it?

Neyartha:
When The Hindu offered to carry bylines, I wanted to choose something Indian in flavour and also convey something related to cryptic puzzles. “Neyartha” is a Sanskrit word with origins in Buddhism. It literally means “provisional intent”. In layman’s terms, it is something which requires interpretation, and shouldn’t be taken at face value (very similar to cryptic crossword clues!). In the literal sense, it is not a gender noun at all. As a crossword byline, I guess it adds a little bit to the cryptic feel of the puzzle.

Q3: What is your method of setting? Do you write all the clues in sequence, in one sitting or in spurts? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Neyartha: As evident in my comments on the guest post by Anax, I am a heavy user of technology for compiling crosswords. Before writing clues, I make use of Crossword Compiler to generate filled grids with thematic entries (more on this in the answer to the next question). I then filter out the filled words into a text file for further processing. After grappling around with many different programs, I have now settled down to a workflow which is most efficient for me.

At any given point of time in the compilation process, my computer workspace is similar to the screenshot below (click to enlarge):

CrosswordCompilation-Neyartha-TheHindu

The text file with the words to be clued is at the top left. At the bottom right, I have a spreadsheet to keep track of the number of times a particular cryptic device has been used in that puzzle. I wasn’t keeping track of this during my initial days. After compiling 20 or 30 puzzles, I realised that solvers like these devices to be present in a certain ratio. I use WordWeb Pro (with WordNet, Chambers and The Oxford English Dictionary) and Matt Ginsberg’s Clue Database (which is a database of clues found in the US newspaper puzzles) for the direct definitions. In addition, I also maintain a SQLite database of indicators for various cryptic devices. This database can be queried according to needed characteristics. As a last resort, I use WordPlay Wizard to get an idea of what cryptic devices can be used with a particularly difficult-to-clue word.

The spreadsheet has various cryptic devices in the order in which I find it difficult to write clues for. For example, I found that it is usually difficult to find words in the puzzle to be clued with a cryptic definition. In any puzzle, I get those clue types out of the way first (because I have a larger pool of words to choose from at that time). Anagrams, charades and embedded clues are comparatively easy to write, and often blend in with other clue types. I usually keep them for the last. By the time I finish up with the quota of other clue types, I find that around 50% of the quota of these clue types is also fulfilled. As is evident from the above methodology, I don’t set the clues in order.

I take a break (ranging from a few hours to a few weeks depending on how far away the puzzle submission deadline is) after finishing up with the first five or six clue types in the spreadsheet. Sankar, in charge of the crossword feature at The Hindu, is kind enough to send me a gentle reminder around a week before the due date. After receiving that email, I sit down to finish clueing the rest of the puzzles. Sometimes, I am able to clue five to ten words in a hour. When stuck with compilers’ block, I consider myself lucky if I can clue one word in that time. All my puzzles for The Hindu have 30 clues each, and, in a crunch situation, I believe I need at least 2 days to finish up a puzzle from scratch.

Q4: How does creating a themed puzzle differ in effort and approach, compared to a regular puzzle? I've noticed that you create different themes using the same grids. That must be very hard to do.

Neyartha: In my compilation methodology, the themed puzzles are no different from the usual puzzles except during the initial fillup of the grid. I usually finish up grid fills for 30 - 40 puzzles at a time. The process starts with trying to find good themes for crossword puzzles. My favourite method is to randomly browse Wikipedia till I hit upon a certain category or theme. However, I find that Wikipedia based themes are not such a great hit with solvers. In the last grid fill, I relied more on themes which came up in my day to day routine. For example, I was taking a print out at my workplace one day, and it struck me that the various types of printers could be a theme for a crossword puzzle.

Once I decide upon the theme, I draw up a list of at least 10 theme words. Crossword Compiler has got a nifty feature in which it can take words from a provided word list. I use the created theme list and it tries to fill up the grid with as many words from the word list as possible. Once I am satisfied with the fill for one of the five grids that I regularly use, I shift over to the default word list to fill up the grid. Sometimes, the theme fill renders any fillup of the remaining blanks with the default word list impossible. It is a back-and-forth process to identify the correct theme suitable for a particular grid while making sure that the remaining entries can also be filled up.

All in all, creating themed puzzles is not as difficult as it sounds if proper use of available software tools is made.

Q5: What, according to you, qualifies as a good themed puzzle?

Neyartha: As a cruciverbalist with an engineering background, I have been guilty many times of composing puzzles with engineering themes. I am not sure the general solver likes those type of puzzles. If the target audience of the puzzle is able to identify with the theme and get an ‘Aha’ effect separate from appreciating the individual clues, then I would term it as a good themed puzzle.

In this context, many of my own themed puzzles may have missed its mark with a majority of the solvers. However, this has probably got to do with the varied demographic that The Hindu caters to. Hopefully, there are a few techies out there who have enjoyed those specific themed puzzles that I compiled.

Looking at themed 15x15 puzzles from another viewpoint, I find that they can broadly be divided into the following categories:

  1. Starred clues with no direct definition
  2. Same short-form used in all the theme clues
  3. Same definition used in all the theme clues
  4. No indication of any theme in the clue wordings, but realisation by solver after completely solving the puzzle

In my opinion, the fourth variety is the best, if done properly. Often times, I have seen that solvers fail to cotton on to the theme even after solving the puzzle fully. This is disappointing for the compiler. (3) is not much of a challenge for the compiler, while (1) is what I used to prefer (but solvers again loved to hate!). I find (2) being used in UK puzzles, but I personally don’t prefer it.

Q6:You have been setting for a couple of years now. Do you see a change in yourself as a setter since your early days?

Neyartha: I have been a part of the compilers panel for more than 3 years now, and have set more than 80 puzzles for The Hindu. My presence online has helped me obtain direct feedback from solvers. Sometimes, when I look back at the clues in my initial puzzles, I can find obvious flaws in the surface reading and structure. For example, I am very careful about using ‘doctor’ as an anagram indicator nowadays; making sure that it is always placed before the anagram fodder. Usage to the contrary can be found in some of my early puzzles.

As a setter, I have seen myself composing clues with better surface reading and proper use of cryptic indicators. Overall, I believe my clues have become fairer.

Q7: Your grid fills are sometimes considered too "esoteric". Do you think you may be losing out on a large section of solvers due to this?

Neyartha: This is an unfortunate side-effect of my thematic grid fill methodology. I am trying to minimise the number of uncommon words in each puzzle. I understand that a large section of solvers are not comfortable with uncommon words. As a solver myself, I take up uncommon words as an opportunity to widen my vocabulary. But, the good thing is that the solvers see my puzzles only twice a month. Other compilers cater to a wider audience by adopting other grid filling methods which eschew uncommon words. I guess The Hindu caters to all types of solvers and gives them an opportunity to appreciate the handwork of various types of compilers.

Q8: Just as there is a "writer's block", is there also a "setter's block"? If there is, how does one overcome it?

Neyartha: Yes, and the setter’s block is very frustrating when a deadline is looming. The solution which works for me is being away from the computer (which is exactly what you can’t do when there is a deadline!) and returning after a break of 1 or 2 hours. Anything which takes the mind off crossword compiling helps.

I believe taking a break to someone else’s crossword might also help (and give clueing ideas), but I am yet to try this method out.

Q9: What advice would you give to solvers who want to become setters?

Neyartha: The ideal route would be to take part in the various clue writing competitions on various forums. Once you get feedback on 20 or 30 clues, you get an idea of what must be corrected in your clueing style. The next step would be to start compiling small 10x10 with 10 to 15 clues and posting them in a blog. Your participation in the clue writing competitions should ensure that you have a steady stream of visitors to your blog, giving you feedback.

Do note that being a setter requires more dedication than being a solver. Having been on both sides of the fence, I would say that being a solver is much more enjoyable. Compiling puzzles has its own charm, but it is very different from the satisfaction one gets as a solver. As a compiler, you also need to be receptive to constructive criticism.

Q10: Which puzzles do you solve yourself?

Neyartha: Before becoming a part of The Hindu’s compiler panel, I used to solve THC everyday. Since then, I have shifted to Financial Times and the occasional Guardian.

Q11: How important is solvers’ feedback to you? I remember you were the first setter of The Hindu to interact directly with solvers and address their queries. What an incredible surprise it had been in those days!

Neyartha: As I had mentioned in one of my previous answers, the way my compilation skills have shaped up is entirely due to feedback from solvers and the honorary crossword editor at The Hindu. I might have been the first setter to interact directly with solvers using my pseudonym avatar, but I am aware of at least one other setter who interacted with solvers online (albeit in a different avatar) even before I started compiling for The Hindu.

Q12: How well do the compilers of The Hindu know each other? Do you get to meet and interact, ask each other for a second opinion about a clue? Which setters of the Hindu do you most admire?

Neyartha: I have interacted (occasionally in person, and regularly online) with only one of the compilers (Gridman). He was the one who introduced me to the newspaper. I used to get a lot of feedback from him initially, but that has stopped now. Probably, he feels I am getting good enough feedback from the solvers themselves on the forums! That said, I do send in a few clues every now and then for his opinion on fairness and style.

I envy Gridman and Sankalak for churning out crossword after crossword with the same level of difficulty, while making sure that every clue is within the same boundaries of fairness.

Q13: Which compilers outside of The Hindu do you most admire?

Neyartha: Most of the FT puzzles that I like to solve with enthusiasm are from DANTE or NEO.

Q14: Is there a puzzle or clue of your own, which is special to you for any reason?

Neyartha: Back in 2008, I compiled a 25x25 cryptic puzzle for a workshop with a local theme. Till date, it is the largest puzzle (both in terms of clue count as well as grid size) that I have compiled, which is why it is special to me.  I do want to put the puzzle up online, but its local theme has always made me hesitant.

Q15: What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Neyartha: Outside cryptic crosswords, I like doing needlework (particularly, embroidery pieces). I also write reviews and analyses pieces for one of the world’s leading online technology websites. The latter offers me some scope for investigative journalism, something I had always been interested in doing since school days.

Q16: Needlework! Can you share a picture of something you've embroidered?

Neyartha: Here is one:

Embroidery

Q17: Please tell us some of your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Neyartha: Most of my crossword-related experiences are as a solver. I got the chance to meet up with a lot of interesting people online and in person too. Cryptic crosswords are a great way to make friends.

As a setter, I always remember the day my first crossword was published in The Hindu because it also happened to be the day I got engaged.

Q18: Your message for The Hindu Crossword solvers:

Neyartha: Don't get disappointed if you are unable to complete the puzzles, and be enthusiastic about widening your vocabulary. Solving puzzles as a group activity is fun, so try that out if you haven't done yet. Most importantly, enjoy your time with the crosswords!
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Monday, February 14, 2011

Interview: Sankalak

[Introductory Post: Interviews with The Hindu Crossword Setters]

P C  Jayaraman - Sankalak Solving Sankalak's puzzles, you get the feeling that the setter is on *your* side – giving you gentle encouragement and moments to savour, never asking too much of you. Pleasant and simple and impeccably clued, Sankalak's puzzles have been a constant source of delight to solvers of The Hindu Crossword since a couple of decades.

We can now put a name to the pseudonym and a face to the name – Sankalak has generously shared them with us for this fascinating interview. Read on to know the man behind the pseudonym.

Q1: It's a pleasure to have you talking with us, Sankalak. Please tell us about yourself, how you got introduced to crosswords and how you got into setting for The Hindu.

Sankalak: It is equally a pleasure for me to interact with you and other crossword lovers.

It was a casual thing to start with, when, in the mid-seventies, a colleague and I used to spend about 15 minutes every day during the lunch break in Udyog Bhavan poring over the The Times crossword - it used to appear in The Statesman. We gradually reached a stage when we could solve more than half the puzzle every day. Sometimes we would even finish it. But the main thing was my interest in language and books in general. Later, when I came to Madras (now Chennai) I chanced to learn that The Hindu was looking for compilers. I sent in a couple of my efforts at compiling and was accepted.

About me – I studied zoology, taught the subject in the Madras Christian College for four years, then joined the Central Government. Most of my working life was spent in Delhi (Udyog Bhavan and North Block), with two stints on deputation in Ernakulam and Geneva. Took early retirement and settled down in Chennai. Since July 2009, I am a resident of Coimbatore.

Q2: Other setters like Gridman, Nita Jaggi and Cryptonyte are known publicly through their press mentions or their social media presence. Why do you choose to remain pseudonymous?

Sankalak: It was purely fortuitous. The Hindu started publishing the byline only recently. I was given the choice of using my name or a pseudonym. I chose the latter for no particular reason. I might as readily have chosen to go by my real name which is P.C. Jayaraman. But perhaps it is not such a bad thing to have an alias, because bloggers may (perhaps) be more forthright when they are talking about an unknown!

Q3: When you began setting, feedback about your puzzles was probably scant. Now there is no dearth of it - every clue is analysed and commented upon. Do you read all the feedback? How does it affect you?

Sankalak: I follow the Colonel’s blog and the Orkut group. And your blog of course. One has to take the comments in one’s stride, though one may not always agree with all that is said. No, criticism does not bother me though I sometimes feel silly when a clear error is pointed out!

Q4: The internet revolution has also brought about easy access to puzzles outside India. Do you think this has an impact on crosswords created in India?

Sankalak: Honestly I cannot answer one way or another as I do not spend much time looking at puzzles published abroad. But the Internet has certainly had an impact in compiling and solving, given the tools that are available.

Q5: Experienced solvers sometimes call your puzzles "too easy". What do you say to that?

Sankalak: So be it! I am reminded of a comment you once made in a blog that for most people crosswords are a short time pastime. Certainly, when I try to solve a puzzle, I almost never refer to dictionaries and such. It is nice if you can do it all in the limited time you spend on it. It is not that I deliberately make the puzzles easy or anything else. I follow some guidelines I have set for myself as much as I can and if, in the result, the puzzles are easy, I do not mind.

Q6: What is your method of setting? Do you write all the clues in sequence, in one sitting or in spurts? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Sankalak: Before the advent of computers, it took a longish time even for compiling the solution grid. The Longmans Crossword Key was a big help in those days. But my wife, a retired AIR newsreader, makes the grids for me and now uses the computer. After checking to see that there are no repetitions of recently used words (as far as possible), I do the clues. It could take a day or more for each puzzle. I do not try to finish all the clues in one go. There are always breaks when you feel that your mind does not work. Sometimes even one clue might take a very long time and you revisit it more than once before you are satisfied. Usually I do the clues in serial order but not necessarily. I pass over some words and come back to them later.

Q7: That is most interesting. Does your wife also test-solve your crosswords?

Sankalak: My wife tries to solve the puzzles when they are published and finds herself unable to complete them in most cases.  There is a time lag between the submission and publication of the crosswords (nearly six months now) and, by the time of publication, my wife cannot remember the grids made by her!  So much for easy puzzles!  Vimala (it is funny to say 'my wife' every time) finds the Sudoku puzzles easier and completes them on most days.

Q8: Is crossword setting a natural talent or can it be learnt? What advice would you give to an aspiring crossword setter?

Sankalak: I think anyone with sufficient interest and application can do it. No inborn talent is involved. An aspiring compiler should have a fair command of the language, a good vocabulary (which is gained mainly by reading) and good general knowledge. Familiarity with Indian and (some) foreign languages helps.

Q9: How easy or hard is it for someone in India to become a professional crossword setter? Can one seriously dream of it as a full-time profession?

Sankalak: I cannot really venture a view on this. But a full-time professional setter? I would have gone crazy if I were one. For me, solving crosswords was and continues to be a hobby and compiling is also a matter of interest.

Q10: Which puzzles do you solve?

Sankalak: Now, almost none except THC. Used to do The Times and Telegraph, but not regularly.

Q11: Can you share with us the best compliments that you have received for your setting, and the sharpest criticism?

Sankalak: There were two or three letters received by the paper (and forwarded to me) criticizing something or the other. One I remember was for my using ‘Draco’ or ‘draconian’ in a crossword. The writer thought that this was not a word well-enough known to be used in a puzzle.

Q12: How well do the compilers of The Hindu know each other? Do you get to meet and interact, ask each other for a second opinion about a clue? Which setters of the Hindu do you most admire?

Sankalak: I have personally known only Gridman and that is right from the time I became a compiler for The Hindu in 1991. And I like his puzzles as I think we both follow the same basic criteria. The new compilers – Neyartha, Cryponyte and Spiffytrix – are also quite interesting and have brought in their own techniques.

Q13: If you had to pick two clues of your own that you are proud of, what would they be?

Sankalak: I cannot really think of any. Never seriously thought about it, I guess. But I can recall a clue, written by someone else, which I have liked a lot. It was like this:

If pig was P and boar was B, … Nonsense! (7)

One tends to remember bad clues more, perhaps, especially if they contain errors.

Q14: You have been setting for nearly two decades now. Do you see a change in your puzzles, or your setting style, since your early days?

Sankalak: Yes, I think there have been some gradual changes. Perhaps I am now a little less particular about following some of the rules I have set for myself, in the interest of ‘surface’ reading. One also learns something new all the time, from the puzzles set by others, from the comments in blogs and so on.

Q15: Is it tough to continue to come up with new ideas for wordplay? How do you keep your clueing fresh?

Sankalak: It is certainly not easy and that is why clue-writing takes so long some times. It is not nice to write a continuous string of clues of the same type – especially charades. To distribute different types of clues judiciously takes some effort and time. In spite of one’s best efforts, errors do creep in now and then and the compiler kicks himself when he sees it in print. One thing I try to ensure is that I do not repeat any clue and that a word once used in the grid is not repeated for some months at least.

Q16: What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Sankalak: Classical music – Carnatic, Hindustani and Western – and reading. Much of my reading has been fiction and humour but I also like biographies and travel books. Some of my favourtie authors include Oscar Wilde, Wodehouse, Huxley, Maugham, Ian Hay, A P Herbert, Cronin, George Sava, Nevil Shute, Stephen Leacock, Paul Theroux, some modern writers like Grisham and Khushwant Singh.

Q17: Your message for The Hindu Crossword solvers:

Sankalak: Crosswords are fun but not literary compositions of lasting importance. For most solvers, each puzzle is of ephemeral interest, maybe a half hour or an hour. Another day, there is another puzzle.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you and other crossword enthusiasts.
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More Setter Interviews:

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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Announcement: Some Exciting News for The Hindu Crossword Solvers

drumroll A special series is soon to be published on Crossword Unclued, especially for followers of The Hindu Crossword. You've read Cryptonyte's interview so far, I thought it would be great to get to know all our setters better: who they are in real life, how they set their crosswords, what they do apart from crosswords.

Gear up dear readers, to catch the Other Side of the architects of our across and down delights. Here's announcing a series of interviews with setters of The Hindu. Four more interviews in all (I wasn't able to contact one setter and another declined). The interviews will appear every Monday, starting 14th February 2011. Stay connected via RSS, email, facebook or twitter to get notified as soon as a new post is up.

I am most grateful to the setters of The Hindu who agreed to the idea [and also answered some not-so-comfortable questions sportingly :)].

I hope you all love the series!

Update: The Series Is On

Follow the links below to read the Hindu Crossword setter interviews.

Here are some other interviews of celebrated crossword personalities.

If you wish to keep track of further articles on Crossword Unclued, you can subscribe to it in a reader via RSS Feed. You can also subscribe by email and have articles delivered to your inbox, or follow me on twitter to get notified of new links.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Who says documentaries are boring? Watch Wordplay

wordplay dvd "Well, it's not like insulin. I mean, I can live without it for a day." says Jon Stewart, American standup comedian and crossword fan, when asked if he can do without the daily crossword puzzle. [Wordplay, 2006]

Whoever can identify with that sentiment – and I bet that's most of you reading the blog – is going to love this smart film on the world of crosswords. Wordplay is full of nuggets about grid-smitten folk – one champion solver cannot understand why people spend hours on a puzzle that takes her ten minutes ["I guess I've just accumulated a lot of useless knowledge that often is in the puzzles", she adds bemusedly], another when passing by a place with the word "Intercoastal" in it, remarks that the word is an anagram of ALTERCATIONS.

The pivotal figure in Wordplay is Will Shortz, New York Times (NYT) crossword editor, possibly the most powerful figure in the American puzzle world. He talks of the changes he has brought about in the NYT crossword since he took on the role of editor in 1993, and good-humouredly reads out some sharp letters written to him. "Dear Sir or Madam…you have taken all the fun out of crosswords." complains one writer. "You are sick, sick, sick." declares another. It comes with the territory, doesn't it, puzzle makers?

The film also visits celebrity solvers like Bill Clinton and Bob Dole who share their reactions to the diabolical New York Times Election Day Puzzle of 1996. The puzzle is displayed ingeniously in the film with the lights fading in and out of the grid cells and the clues inset.

Wordplay is about a non-cryptic crossword yet the film is no less interesting for solvers of cryptics. In a broad sense there is a lot in common between the two styles of puzzles: the same consideration for difficulty and symmetry, the approach to adding words to the grid – crossword setter Merl Reagle takes us through the process starting with the long entries, paying attention to crossing words till he reaches a stage where he needs to check the dictionary for a grid fill. As a musician in the film puts it, comparing crossword construction to writing a song - "all those things you play with - obscurity, clarity, generalization, specificity". You could say the same for cryptic crosswords.

Both styles of puzzles inspire a common drive in their fans to find answers, and a lot of Wordplay is about such devoted solvers. The film is built around the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament where crossword titans battle it out for the top spot. The film is visually excellent: it lets us watch the clues – and play along at places - as the competitors fill the grid on huge whiteboards. The final has all the thrill and suspense of a high-energy sport. A race against time by the three finalists, a heartbreaking faux pas, a close fight to the finish and ultimately the winner's classic victory statement: "Words are failing me. I am just glad they waited until now to do so."

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PS: I think America is such a great place for encouraging enterprise. Through Indiana University's Individualized Major Program, Will Shortz studied Enigmatology in college, a course he designed himself – apparently Indiana University has an Individualized Major Program that lets you create your own personalized course of study. Will Shortz is the only person known to hold a college degree in the subject. Can we imagine doing something like that in India? For that matter, can we imagine a special grid of The Hindu Crossword being a topic of TV news, being commented on by the PM and leader of Opposition? OK, it might happen if The Hindu Crossword publishes a grid as sensational as the NYT Election Day Puzzle, but I doubt it :)

PPS: Straight crossword clues with difficult vocabulary are harder than cryptics for sure. I wouldn't get 1 Across of the championship final - "Stark and richly detailed, as writing (9)" without subsidiary indication. Can you? Hint: The answer has a Z and a Q in it.

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