[Introductory Post: Interviews with The Hindu Crossword Setters]
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.
More Setter Interviews:
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.