Wednesday 26 November 2014

Interview: Sowmya Ramkumar

Sowmya Ramkumar A talented new setter who began her setting career after her clues were noticed on Facebook - Sowmya Ramkumar's story is a compelling counterpoint to the idea that online social networks are a "waste of time". Today, apart from creating crosswords for The Hindu Business Line (HBL), Sowmya also runs the Facebook group 1ACross, a hub of hobbyist setters who write (some really good!) clues to daily hash-tagged themes.

Sowmya talks about her crossword journey so far, her unusual HBL brand-themed crossword, and her aspirations as a setter.

Q1: Welcome to Crossword Unclued, Sowmya. Tell us about yourself and how you got the crossword bug.

Sowmya: Hi Shuchi. I am honoured to be here. I am a Chartered Financial Analyst, based in the Middle East (Bahrain). I provide financial consultancy services to regional financial institutions, leveraging on my experience in banking and risk management, gained in an international bank.

My love affair with crosswords began when I was in the seventh grade. I recall seeing my brother (who was then at IIT Madras) attempting the Hindu Crossword and that got me curious. Armed with a tattered dictionary and a Roget's thesaurus, I used to spend hours initially trying to finish and understand the clues. In fact, I used to try out the previous day's crossword each day and would beg my sister to give me letter hints looking at the solutions (since I didn't want to look at them). During my learning process, I used to drive nearly everyone at home - particularly mom - crazy since I would want to share every clue that I solved with her.

Soon, I grasped the basics and also picked up speed. At that time, I used to be able to solve the crossword in 15 minutes or so, while simultaneously getting ready for school. At school, my English teacher Ms. Hema Ramanathan, was also a regular solver. So, during school recess, we used to validate answers and discuss clues that made us go wow. After I moved abroad, I didn't have easy access to the daily Hindu crosswords and used to initially print them out online and solve them. Also with my banking career and managing the household, I had very little time to devote to this hobby. About 18 months ago, I serendipitously came across Cryptic Crossword Society (CCS), the online Facebook group and that was when I started setting clues. I learnt a lot about setting and solving from that group and also from various blogs online including your blog and the Colonel's.

Q2: You are the solo setter of the new cryptic - The Hindu Business Line (HBL) crossword. How did that happen?

Sowmya: Once I joined CCS, I enjoyed setting clues so much that I used to post quite a large number of clues each day. Since CCS was an open group, my clues had been flowing into news feeds of people on my contacts list. Meanwhile, The Hindu Business Line was launching a new brand supplement called Cat.a.lyst  - targeted at marketing and advertising. The Cat.a.lyst editor was scouting for a setter who could create themed crosswords and I was introduced to him by my cousin, who is a mutual contact. A crossword based purely on brand names seemed enormously difficult to do, especially using cryptic clues. I am drawn to challenges like a bee to honey (or perhaps a kamikaze pilot to the terra firma) and so, naturally I jumped at it. I was approached in November 2013 and after initial discussions, I sent in a sample crossword. The editor liked the sample crossword I made for them and my first crossword appeared on 24th Jan 2014.

Q3: I’ve been curious why The Hindu publishers have not provided interactive solving for their daily crossword yet, but they have done so for their Business Line crossword. Do you have any idea about it?

Sowmya: In the case of the Cat.a.lyst Brand Crosswords, this was something I had requested from day 1, because I felt it would make it available to a larger audience through this platform. The editorial team was also on-board and got their IT team working hard to provide a custom interface. I think they have done a fantastic job and it works pretty well. Thanks to this, I have also earned a small place in Indian crossword history with the distinction of being the setter of the first Indian crossword that's available for solving interactively online :) Crossword 6, 28th Feb 2014 was the first online interactive crossword.

I really can't say why The Hindu does not provide this, though it would be great if they did. We did have some teething problems and it does require the setter to provide the data files in specific format for upload - maybe when you have a number of setters, it is not as easy to implement a change like this. However, with software available to easily generate the files, that should not be an impediment at all.

Q4: Other crosswords are cautious about using brand names in the grid or clues - many have a policy to exclude them altogether. The HBL crossword, themed on brand names, goes the other extreme :-) How do you pick the brands for use in your crosswords?

Sowmya: Ha ha Shuchi - guess I'm marching to a different drummer :) Since, this was part of my mandate, I began by compiling a long list of Indian and International brand names. This was then vetted by the Cat.a.lyst Editor, and we agreed that this would be the master database to use in the crosswords.

I have about 10 different grids and I pick the brands based on the grids. I try to minimise any repetitions of brand names or overlaps of industry since the universe is limited. On occasion when I am forced to repeat a brand that I have clued before, I always change the clues, so that it is still fresh.

If I I can't fit the brand name into solutions, I use them in clues. Having completed over 40 brand crosswords, with about 22-25 clues each week, I reckon, I must have set clues for nearly 1000 brands already!

Q5: Are the brands mentioned in the grid/clues getting lucky with free publicity, or are there advertising fees linked to their appearance in the crossword? For example, Crossword 38 features Koutons and Spice Jet – aren't Provogue and Go Air getting shortchanged?

Sowmya: I am not aware of the commercial arrangements in connection with the crossword. Since I have been given the flexibility of choosing the brands I set clues for each week, I do not think they are paying advertising fees for their appearance. In fact, It would be wishful thinking on my part to imagine brands and companies vying for product placement within my cryptic crosswords :)

Given that this is a weekly puzzle, a large number of brands have already figured in the crosswords. As for those feeling shortchanged, I can only say… "Rest assured, your turn will come too:)" The flip side is, whenever I see advertisements on TV these days, I can only think of whether I have set a clue for the brand already or how I could frame a potential clue on it.

Q6: What are the challenges specific to creating a fixed-themed crossword every week? How do you tackle the challenges?

Sowmya: The biggest challenge is in generating the grid. I try to stick to well-known and recognized brands for the grid fills. If I feel that the brand name is a bit obscure, I try to make the word play reasonably simple to be able to get to the answer.

In each grid I try and use at least a few brand names that are commonly used words since that gives me a certain amount of cluing flexibility.

Another challenge, is the limited flexibility on what else I can do with the crosswords. I am happy to say that, in addition to the overarching theme, I have managed to set a few pangrams, a clue acrostic for a personal celebration, a second theme on a couple of occasions etc. I also commemorated the 25th crossword with a lipogram (to match the 25th week) bundled with a clue acrostic that spelt the milestone.

Having said that, I felt that a number of these were just achievements from a setter's perspective and not usually picked up by the average solver. Moreover, these were obviously more time consuming to set than the normal crosswords.

Q7: Tell us about your Facebook group 1ACross – how did it start? What sets it apart from other Facebook groups for cryptic crossword lovers?

Sowmya: After spending a year at the CCS group, I was amazed at how it had grown geometrically in that time. It had maybe 1000 members when I joined and has about 14000 now. As a large group, CCS had started attracting trolls and spammers, which caused a dilution in quality.

Along with two of my CCS friends Lakshmi Vaidyanathan and Martin DeMello, we started out four months ago. Our objective was to have a small group and to focus on the quality of clues than just the quantity. We have a good mix of some fantastic setters and solvers.

We also have daily games related to crosswords on 1 ACross and all the members who participate really enjoy that. There is a general camaraderie and banter that you would only expect from people you have known all your lives – I guess having common interests and a passion for words and crosswords is the great common thread that binds all our lives. We recently celebrated 100 games at 1 Across, with a community grid put-together by 19 setters.

Q8: What are your favorite clues from 1ACross?

Sowmya: There are so many clues that are really good and this is just a sampling.

Provide food to support one who eats, shoots, and leaves? (11) - Heidi Schroeder

Four retarded aliens, sharing a secret (4-1-4) - Brian Dungate

(Twelfth of seventy-eight)+(fourth of five)+(eighth of eighteen) - (3) - Mohsin Ahmed

Italian unable to watch hanging (8,5) - Bash Ashok

yes come back do come back first
yes come on in heartless journey (7)
- Ravan IITM

Sounding board for physicist (6) - Anjali Doney Varghese

[Answers at the end of the post]

Q9: Which crosswords do you solve? How do you fare with them?

Sowmya: I do the Hindu Crossword and the Guardian Crosswords. I usually complete the Hindu Crossword without much difficulty. It's quite different with the Guardian crosswords and on some days I finish it while on other days, I don't get very far at all. I also solve the Independent cryptics, which are reasonably easy.

On some days, I just solve the stand alone clues on 1 ACross or on CCS and when I get to beat some of the super solvers in speed solving, it gives me an unparalleled adrenalin surge :)

Q10: If you could change one thing about crosswords in India, what would it be?

Sowmya: I feel that there is not enough awareness about crosswords or setters. In fact, before I came across the blogs such as yours and Colonel's, I really did not know what a fantastic job some of our setters have been doing, in terms of innovation and quality of cluing. I think cryptic crosswords is one of the most mentally stimulating hobbies any one could have and yet, they are not given their due.

More Indian publications should give importance to this feature by using home grown talent than outsourcing with syndicated crosswords, because, frankly, the talent is available and there is quite a large following in India. For ensuring quality and standardisation of published crosswords, they could have crossword editors to check crosswords before they are published.

Q11: Is there a crossword culture in Bahrain or neighbouring regions? Are there crosswords of any kind created/published locally?

Sowmya: Bahrain has an active scrabble league and in fact, pioneered the Gulf Scrabble Championships (GSC) in 1991. The first 19 editions were in Bahrain, with Oman hosting the 20th. Dubai has hosted it since 2011. A number of word mavens of different nationalities live in Bahrain and it is quite likely that many of them also do solve cryptic crosswords.

However, there is no active interaction or forum for regional crossword enthusiasts that I am aware of. The newspapers in Bahrain do carry cryptic crosswords but these are usually syndicated. Interestingly enough, several years ago, one of the local magazines had run a  cryptic crossword contest. I had sent in my entry and was pleasantly surprised to win the first prize - a DVD cum VCR player, which I still treasure. While I had not really thought about it in all these years, that crossword had been set locally.

Q12: As a crossword setter, what are your aspirations?

Sowmya: When I started setting, I had never imagined getting this kind of acceptance in the crossword community. I was extremely thrilled that Gridman, for whom I have a lot of respect, took time to provide a blog post on one of my earliest crosswords. He had also taken pains to help me improve my crosswords with suggestions through email or in the Colonel's blog. I would also like to set regular crosswords in one of the leading dailies, and would probably do it when I have more time on my hands.

Q13: What is your process of setting?

Sowmya: I usually prepare the grid first in Crossword Compiler. As I do the grid fill, I pick brand names, keeping in mind possible cluing options. I usually keep the latest grid on my iPad and write out clues, over 3-4 days, as I get ideas. The actual time spent on a grid is approximately 5-10 hours, from start to finish.

Sowmya Ramkumar. setting a crossword
Sowmya in her lounge, with her setting "tools and equipment".

I use a number of resources on the net and also try and understand what the brands are about, especially while coining the definitions. I usually eschew letter abbreviations, and even when I use them, I try to use ones that seem intuitive than off a list on the net. I like to strike a balance between various clue types and love including uncommon clue types such as Spoonerisms or reverse wordplay, whenever I get the chance to do so.

Q14: Which crossword setters do you most admire?

Sowmya: Among the Indian setters, I admire Buzzer, Arden and of course Gridman. I have a lot of respect for Sankalak's ability to keep the crosswords simple and do-able. Among the international setters, I admire Araucaria, Rufus and Arachne.

I admire the simplicity of Sankalak's clues and the deviousness of Araucaria and frankly, I would like to be known as a setter who has a combination of both.

Q15: If you had to pick clues of your own that you are proud of, which would they be?

Sowmya: Here are some that I like, from my brand crosswords:

Spider-man's dictionary? (8)
Ms. Woolf diets and smokes (8,5)
Spooner's spoilt spicy dishes with chocolate (8)
Back issue of magazine (4)

[Answers at the end of the post]

Q16: Is there a clue type you find tricky to use, or one that you have to make an effort to avoid?

Sowmya: I usually hesitate to do homophones. Since pronunciations are vastly different across geographies, I find homophone clues somewhat dicey and they don't turn out entirely satisfactory to me.

Q17: Tell us about your memorable crossword-related experiences.

Sowmya: During my last vacation, in April this year, I was delighted to be invited by Gridman to his residence. It was wonderful to meet him and his family. We had an impromptu get-together, also attended by THC setters Afterdark and xChequer. We all had a great time discussing crosswords, setting styles, idiosyncrasies of setters, etc. There was a lot of laughter and I was completely at ease, as though I had known them for years. It was also a very informative meeting and I learnt a lot about the history of the Hindu crosswords.

At Gridman's residence. L to R: Sowmya, Bhala (xChequer), Shrikanth (Afterdark), Rishikesh (Gridman)

Another unforgettable, recent experience was a surprise birthday cake that my husband had ordered for me. Although the entire family is somewhat resigned to how crazy I am about crosswords, I was bowled over to see a lovely crossword cake, complete with 1 ACross (literally, the "icing" on my cake :))

Q18: When you're not setting/solving crosswords, what do you do?

Sowmya: Other than my consultancy work, I also teach students of the Chartered Financial Analyst Program, various topics related to Investment banking. It's a pretty rigorous program and almost all my students are bankers themselves, so it is quite challenging but I enjoy it.

I'm also a founding member of the CFA Society of Bahrain and have been one of the board members of the Society.

I run a couple of blogs Gitaaonline and Mantraaonline that cover a range of topics related to the Hindu religion and philosophy. On occasion I lecture on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures, tailored for today's world with thoughts on management and self-improvement.

I have conducted several quiz programs in the island, including a couple of biz-quizzes for banks and financial institutions, which were well-received. I have also organised treasure hunts / scavenger hunts, complete with cryptic clues and all, that has had people running all over the island.

Whenever I get the time, I love listening to music, reading and playing scrabble.

Q19: Parting words:

Sowmya: Shuchi, I think you have done a fantastic job with your blog and I am a great fan. While it's still very early days in my journey as a setter, I am enjoying the ride, taking in the view and having a load of fun. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to interact with your readers.

The inimitable PGW said, “Everything in life that's any fun, as somebody wisely observed, is either immoral, illegal or fattening.” – We can safely say, with crosswords, we found a loophole.


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Kishore said...

Way to go, Happy !

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan said...

Happy , am happy to see your interview. :) All the best !

Col_Gopinath said...

WOW Sowmya. Hope to see you as a setter on THC one of these days.

Mukundala Balasubramanyam said...

Nice interview. Best of luck, Sowmya(ji)! :)

Rengaswamy said...

Very happy to read about your achievements and your latent talents which we were not aware of. Wish you all the best in the ensuing IXL14 finals.

Sowmya said...

Shuchi, thanks for a fabulous interview - I had a lot of fun answering all your questions and loved your attention to detail. More power to your pen:)

Thanks Kishore and Lakshmi. Happy is happy:)

Colonel, many thanks for your blog - has been a learning ground for many new setters such as me.

Mukundabala(ji) - Thanks:) - Looks like you have paid a visit to my blogs too:)

Thanks Renga for your kind words - I am also looking forward to meeting a number of my crossword friends in person there..

Smi said...

What a fun and fabulous read!!
I loved the interview :) Thanks for clueing us in on what makes you tick :):)
oh and you didn't mention your night time light reading of the complete works of Spinoza :)

C.G. BHARGAV said...

Wonderful interview. I would like to add that Sowmya's blog 1ACross has succeeded in bringing out the talent of setting clues latent in many a person. Keep it going.

michael said...

Happy Thanksgiving to all those here in America!
I've got some themed crossword cryptic definitions for you to solve:
The Sonoma of stool samples? (7,7)
Feinted feint? (10,4)
Eating crow? (8,4)
They make out at home? (5,7)

And checkers:

michael said...

These are my Thanksgiving clues.

The Sonoma of stool samples? (7,7)
Feinted faint? (10,4)
Eating crow? (8,4)
They make out at home? (5,7)

All answers are definitions for "TURKEY"

Sowmya said...

Thanks Smi - Spinoza - Ah, yes..provides refreshing breaks, when I am not engrossed in Dostoyevsky and the great Russians - Ha ha:)

Thanks Bhargav sir. It has been a pleasure getting acquainted with all the latent* talent in our group - certainly a win-win, no doubt.

Kishore said...

Thanks, Michael, for those clues. Continuing in the same vein :
Vegetarian food: Food that Obama might have enjoyed for Thanksgiving, if he was not in a pardoning mood (3,3,6)
-A- -N- -H-E-E

Sowmya said...

MAC AND CHEESE - Kishore (after the lucky turkeys pardoned by Obama in the American tradition of pardoning turkeys on thanksgiving)