Friday, March 21, 2014

Interview: Kishore Rao (Incognito)

KishoreTo interview someone long-familiar is tricky business - there is the risk of omitting questions we already know the answers to, or of veering into off-topic terrain. The lack of distant awe, combined with Kishore's penchant for talking in riddles, meant plenty of back-and-forth questioning and cross-questioning. I had great fun over this conversation with Kishore and I hope it is as entertaining for you to read.

Kishore Rao is the setter Incognito in The Hindu, also one of the fastest known crossword solvers in India. He is well-versed with several languages (has created cryptic crosswords in some), which he puts to good use in his multilingual puns. Read on to know more about this supremely gifted man.

Q1: Since your normal conversations are so hard to parse, one would expect your cryptic puzzles to be the sort that send shivers down solvers’ spines. But surprise - Incognito is the gentlest setter of The Hindu. How so?

Kishore: My 'normal' conversations are abnormal only when I interact with friends, who I know are capable of parsing and digesting what I say. This trait is probably a result of an eagerness to get away from the straight-jacket sort of language I am forced to use in my workplace, which does not give me any scope for creativity.

Regarding Incognito, you have chosen to use the superlative and I concur that all other setters in The Hindu panel are probably tougher or more devious. My aim is entice new solvers into the fold. As their abilities increase, they may tackle the tougher ones with more confidence. Being a crosswords 101 lesson has its flip side too. Easy puzzles tend to get looked down upon by some, including some who themselves were in the 101 class some time back.

Q2: So you could, if you wished to, set much harder puzzles? And if yes, can you sometimes oblige the so-called advanced solvers as well?

Kishore: I think and hope I can. Incognito does this sometimes by using other pseudonyms, which can presently remain shrouded.

Q3: That's a revelation! Hint please – where do Incognito’s alter-egos make an appearance?

Kishore: The Colonel's The Hindu Crossword Corner, for one. But I will not tell you the name under which it appears. Maybe you will think one of the better ones is mine!

Q4: When and how did you get interested in crosswords?

Kishore: I think I started somewhere in the eighties. One of my uncles used to have newspapers with a few words filled in. I tried and could fit in a few more, without any knowledge of how things were supposed to work. Crossword Unclued was, of course, not around to guide me, though I wish you had started blogging 20 years earlier and and I had the benefit of your blog when I started out. I did not have any books and the only way I could progress was looking at the answers the next day and trying to understand what was happening. My real progress came when I was doing Deccan Herald crosswords which invariably gave the annotations in the answer column, a feature they continue even today.

Q5: What do you now think of the Deccan Herald crossword?

Kishore: My son usually picks up a copy of DH for me when he returns from college. I find the daily ones quite easy and the Saturday one reasonably tough. I manage to do about half of it, and then peek at the answers on Sunday. I think is a syndicated one, but I do not know the source. The clues are quite fun, but purists may frown at some of them.

[Shuchi: Three DH clues for readers to solve:
    DH3169: You're fond of sage? Me too! (8)
    DH3184: In the end, do your best to contain (6)
    DH9203: Turn wives crazy, with a bit of luck (6)]

Q6: How did you get into creating crosswords?

Kishore: The entire 'blame' for that rests on the shoulders of Mr CG Rishikesh, known to many of us as Chaturvasi! If not for him, you would have been spared…

Q7: You're a setter for The Hindu and also a blogger on THCC. Isn't there a conflict of interest in the two roles? Suppose you hated the crossword you're blogging about, do you feel an unstated pressure to be nice because the setter is a colleague/someone you know?

Kishore: I really don't think so. Firstly, I never blog on the day my own puzzle appears, though before I revealed my hand behind Incognito, I did comment on my own clues, mainly as a cardinal fish, to throw people off my scent. In this direction, I even wrote some nonsensical doggerel for Incognito, just like I did for other new setters. Secondly, while I appreciate good work, I have made it a policy not to criticize, except to the extent of pointing out errors, if any. There are enough posters who will take the criticism forward, even if it is not always warranted.

Q8: As a crossword blogger on THCC, your cartoon sketches are the highlight of your posts. How do you go about creating them?

Kishore: I usually solve the puzzles first and shortlist words that might spark an idea. On days, I do not blog and the puzzle is very tough, I select the word to be sketched out of the first few (say ten) words to be solved. I test solve for a few setters and hence have the puzzles in advance from some, which also gives me a little longer to visualize and draw. I usually use MS Paint. On days where I did not draw in advance, I stick to a minimalist style, without much elaborate work and try to finish in about 20 minutes. Sometimes, depending upon the details in the sketch, I take double the time. In addition, I have keep a stock of cartoons already drawn which can be readily used with some text changes in case a suitable word is seen in the solution.

Q9: Along with your debut crossword in The Hindu, you wrote –

Till stocks last, all Incognito crossword puzzles will have at least one alternative name, alter ego, pseudonym or appellation of a person, entity, place or character either self-assumed or bestowed.

What was that about?

Kishore: If you go through the clues in the past puzzles, you will find at least one clue which uses an alternative name of a person or place either in the clue or in the wordplay or in the solution. The first 100 Incognito puzzles have this feature, after which I am looking to implement some other device. Interestingly, I have penned some clues on living persons, which is against the specs given by The Hindu. Hence, those persons, in a way are on a death list – those puzzles will go to the newspaper only after they have bought it. At the rate of a puzzle a month, it will take over 8 years to exhaust these puzzles, so I can shuffle their order, if the concerned person continues to breathe.

[Shuchi: 3 of the published Incognito clues for readers to solve:
Caped crusader who had the first mobile, maybe? (6)
    Ask them to rearrange characters for Ipkiss (3,4)
    Forsythe P Jones better known to fans as prison chief (7)

Q10: Do you have something like a "dream puzzle" that you plan to set some day?

Kishore: Curious that you should ask that. I have an old habit of keeping a pen/pencil and some paper next to my bed and get up in the middle of night to scribble things in the darkness. Some are clues and some are germs of ideas for other stuff. These clues may, therefore, be literally called 'dream' clues.

One day I hope to set a crossword in which the clues, when read in order, either narrate a story or a poem.

Q11. What is your method of setting? How long does it take you to set a typical 15x15?

Kishore: I usually write some clues whenever I get any workable idea for wordplay.  If a themed one, I make a list of as many words that I can think of that fit the theme and write clues for them and sort them out on length. Then I chose a grid which can accommodate as many of this as possible.  I also try to fit in an Incognito clue - the raisin has to be put before the remaining dough is poured. After that I try to complete the grid keeping my eyes open for wordplay and writing the clue for it even before the grid is full. Many will find this quite silly, I know. If I have to withdraw the clue due to crossing constraints, the already written clue goes into the warehouse for future use. The time taken varies, I have taken anywhere between two hours to eternity for a basic puzzle. The polishing of clues happens over a time. I solve the puzzle after a month or two to look for anything I might have missed the first time around. The ones taking eternity are presently in limbo and are honoured with a visit once in a way to see if they can progress.  

Q12: If there is one thing you could change about your setting style, what would it be?

Kishore: That is something you will have to tell me. Presently, I am what I am, warts and all.

Q13. Incognito has set a few themed puzzles, notably a series of crosswords on the Indian Air Force, the Army and the Navy. What's with your fascination with the Armed Forces?

Kishore: As a kid, I used to spend my holidays at the Hindon Air Force Base where one of my uncles was based. This led to the fascination with the armed forces especially since this was in the shadow of the '71 war.  My first choice of a career was to be a fighter pilot. However, my colour-blindness did me in. In fact, much later when I flew as Richtofen for the Luftwaffe in WW1, playing a computer game called The Red Baron, the devastation caused by me was unprecedented.  Due to the inability to identify foe or friend in dogfights, I managed to shoot down half my Jasta while the other half must have approached Air Headquarters for a transfer.

Well, other themed crosswords are in the offing, as you will shortly see.

Q14: The real identity of Incognito was a secret for many months. What was your reason for being anonymous?

Kishore: To quote you, to avoid the commentators "an unstated pressure to be nice" to a colleague.

Q15: An article in The Hindu once declared you an expert cheater, and I quote –

“There are three levels of cheating — one where we refer to the dictionary, then another where we refer to Google, then of course the Colonels' blog,” says Kishore, a chartered accountant, before he quickly adds that it is most fun when you get the answers using logic.

Three years have passed since you uttered those words. Have you rethought your stance on cheating in this time?

Kishore: This is exactly why I am scared stiff of interviews. People talking without listening or worse, as Simon and Garfunkel put it "People hearing without listening". This is probably the reason why we have so many people contesting statements attributed to them. What I said was that if you refer to a dictionary or Google to confirm your nebulous thoughts, then that does not count as cheating. In fact, some crossword contests do allow you to use a dictionary. They, of course, don't tell you where to look. The only way one can learn is by finding out the annotations for the ones one could not solve and that is possible only by looking at the answers the next day or at a solver's corner.

By the way, when messages get passed around they tend to get garbled and garnished. The Hindu did not declare me 'an expert cheater'. You did. But you are right. I have cheated the Grim Reaper a few times.

Q16: How, what, when?

Kishore: Let us leave some things for the biography ;-)

Q17: Which crosswords do you solve, other than The Hindu and the Deccan Herald?

Kishore: Usually the Economic Times when I am at Bangalore. When I am travelling, the Telegraph and the Statesman at Kolkata, or whatever the local fare. I also try to solve some of the British ones, like Guardian and Crossword Centre and rarely complete them. Lady Luck smiled on me in December last year, when out of over 50 correct entries, my name was drawn as the winner at Derek Harrison's Crossword Centre. I sometimes potter around (but not very seriously) with crosswords in Hindi and Kannada. Some clues in these are cryptic, and my knowledge of these languages is not very good.

Picture 1: Kishore solving Vernon's Ouroboros. On his left lies the Red Chambers. The blurb on the spine of that book says "Chambers is the one I keep at my right hand - Philip Pullman". "Proves I am not him", Kishore clarifies in case you had any doubts.

Q18: Exactly how many languages do you know? How did you pick up so many?

Kishore: Frankly, I have lost count and lost quite a few languages by disuse. Presently, I think I can read, write and speak English, Hindi and Kannada pretty well. While I can read and speak Tamil, Telugu and Urdu moderately well, I am not very good at writing them. In addition, I speak Konkani, my mother tongue, which has no script of its own, but survives on borrowed scripts. Then the languages I used to know but lost: Bengali and Punjabi. Lastly, the languages I pretend to know: French, Russian and Swahili.(I know only some stock phrases and can read Cyrillic, but again have not used it in the last two decades).

These languages came to me because of various reasons. I studied Sanskrit which gives me about 50% knowledge of many Indian languages as long as I hear the words carefully and map them to the correct root. This exercise, sometimes, has disastrous results. For example, I was once hearing a Dogri song which had the word 'kook'. Somehow my mind was wondering how 'kook' (which in Konkani refers to a root vegetable), fitted in the lyrics. It turned out the Dogri word referred to a bird's call. My father was posted at many places which helped me get the local lingo. I had a Russian teacher at school in Delhi, my brother was studying French and I spent a few months in Kenya. A delusion about my poetic abilities also made me learn Urdu, though it is a quarter of a century since I wrote anything.

Q19: Who are your favourite setters, which are your favourite clues?

Kishore: Among The Hindu ones, Gridman and Sankalak, are my favourites for obvious reasons – simplicity and clarity. Without mentioning names, some setters set clues that are too convoluted to work out on a weekday morning and may put off beginners altogether. Yes, there is a sense of achievement when you summit a mountain, but for the daily exercise, a leisurely walk is preferable.

I really haven't kept track of favourite clues. Maybe I will start from today so that I can provide you some.

Q20: You are among the fastest solvers on the Indian crossword circuit. Please share some tips with beginners to reach your kind of speed.

Kishore: Practice and luck. And maybe all those hours spent pounding asdf ;lkj and similar gibberish. The life in the fast lane is also the most hazardous as you can see from my subsequent performance in the IXL. Past performance, as the financial advisers say, is no assurance of the future. I have peaks and troughs, as against some other solvers who excel regularly. Some days I gaze in a daze at that black & white maze and end up fazed. I am also prone to moods and 'senior moments' as my friend Rishi puts it. Some days, I hardly look at a crossword, and spend my time reading, writing or gardening.

Q21: Any unusual/memorable crossword-related experiences?

Kishore: Many, but let me share a couple here. First, when I was waiting in the lounge of the HAL airport in Bangalore and having solved that day's ET, I was putting it back in my briefcase, a lady next to me revealed that she had been watching me do the puzzle and asked me if I could explain how I had solved it. She told me that her husband who was sitting next to her and she usually laboured over puzzle everyday and managed to do about half of it over the day. I had to explain every clue and its annotation to the couple who were visibly amazed. However, trying to solve tougher puzzles, has made me realize that there are people out there with minds more convoluted than mine.

Second, long back I had the occasion to visit The Hindu on official work. At that time, the setter's name or pseudonym was not printed on the newspaper and I enquired around and got a name: Rishikesh. I wanted to meet the gentleman, but was told that he was out of the country. Many years later, I did meet him and to my delight found in him a great friend and guide.

Q22: Tell us something about yourself that even your closest crossword buddies may not know.

Kishore: My life is an open book and my buddies probably know more about me than I do, seeing that I am a keyboard version of a motor-mouth prone to frequent verbal deluge. Secrets not revealed yet may either get revealed or go with me. I am very mischievous and an incurable romantic. Well, an incident that happened many years back. I was about 19 and my youngest brother was around 10. He had the habit of ringing our front door bell and running to the rear of the house to knock on the back door and try to make me shuttle from door to door. So I stood behind the front door and pulled the door open and said, "I knew you would come, baby. I was waiting for you". I used to tease him as "baby" since he was the youngest at home and I had dandled him on my knees when he was an infant. And on the mat outside the door, to my amazement, horror and delight stood the prettiest girl on that street, aged around 16. And over the years, I have discovered that delight has the longest shelf life!

Q23: What are your interests apart from crosswords?

Kishore: Fixed deposit and savings bank interests. Seriously, in the heat of youth, cycling and swimming were passions which I took to higher levels (in 1977, I cycled/pushed my bicycle to the top of Nandi Hills from Bangalore and back and in 1985, I swam a portion of the Palk bay). I still enjoy trekking when I can, but find it more and more difficult. In desk and bed-bound activities (now don't jump the gun here and think ahead!), I still indulge in mathematics, physics, sketching and lateral thinking puzzles.

Sometime back I started some pencil sketches on the theme "Girls whom I admire". Here's a sketch for you from that series.


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Kishore said...

Thanks, Shuchi, for the intro. I can only think of one more line in your favour-

Jo baat tujh mein hai, teri tasveer mein nahin!

Chaturvasi said...

I enjoyed reading this interview.
The personality of the man comes out so clearly and, yes, so loudly!

C.G. BHARGAV said...

Enjoyed thoroughly. I know he himself will not shelve the shelf-life!!!

Ajeesh VM said...

How can I search for a THCC special where you didn't make any attempt to solve:-D

Chaturvasi said...

I might mention that the sketch in the Col's blog that required details (for which a link is given above in the interview) is not the one that appears right on top but lower down - under 3d.

Shrikanth said...

Aha, typical Kishore. What a lovely interview. Sketch takes the cake as usual. :)

Richard said...

Kishore re-invented.

Mukundala Balasubramanyam said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this interview. I like kishore for his ready wit, pun and (user)friendly CWs. Thank you, Suchi.

pavalamani pragasam said...

Really very interesting! What a lively spirit gushing with dynamism!

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan (LV) said...

Hi Shuchi,
Thanks enjoyed reading the interview .
As expected it is filled with fun & pun :)

Raghunath said...

Had to read Kishore's replies twice, to fully comprehend what he meant. The veneer of conviviality, hides a romantic. Thanks, Shuchi for the interview and may Kishore continue to bring smiles to our faces.

Lloyd said...

Really enjoyed reading this interview Kishore. Nice to know a bit more about you. Thanx for being a good friend and keep on creating puzzles and solving them. :o)

Ramesh M-K said...

Very Nice.. It was only less than 24 hours earlier that i got to know Mr Kishore in a common event and now starting to know other facets of his personality.. Happy to have come across a person of this versatility. All the best.