Thursday, June 23, 2011

When The Times cryptic was a religion

British newspapers, notably The Times, The Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent, carry some of the world's finest cryptic crosswords. My own favourite has been The Times cryptic which I first began solving in my teens, together with my father who was a devout crossword buff. He used to compile them in the 1970s for the erstwhile Sunday Standard, the Sunday edition of Indian Express.

The Times of India subscribed to The Times crossword for several years before it abruptly stopped carrying it somewhere in the early 1990s. That single act of foolishness must have cost the leading daily scores of readers. For, the crossword had legions of loyal fans among the readers of ToI. Before its sad demise, the crossword used to appear in the bottom left-hand corner on the last page of the paper, in black and white, as all crosswords should be. The cryptic was replaced by an American-centric crossword and buried in the entertainment section. I have never solved it.

So popular was the London Times cryptic among crossword fans in Bombay, it was not uncommon to see early-morning commuters, travelling to work by the local suburban train network, having a go at it. I know people who merely glanced at the headlines and promptly turned to the back page, for better part of an hour or even a day. You just didn’t give up on the crossword till you had cracked a decent number of clues.

The joy of cracking a London Times cryptic clue was indescribable while unravelling a 15-word anagram was an absolute delight. You felt a true sense of achievement, like a medical or engineering student clearing his or her entrance. I don’t know how far this is true but the crossword, I am told, is compiled by many hands, which probably explained why there were “good days” and “bad days” every time you tried to solve it. On some days you got through most of the intelligent clues and on other days you barely made it past ten, up or down. So you counted your friends and foes behind the cryptic by the clues you could, or could not, solve.

In many ways the departure of the famous cryptic in The Times of India marked the death of the crossword in Bombay, to be replaced by that numerical brain teaser Sudoku. People still solve the “concise” or “quick” or “easy” crosswords but it’s not the same thing. Now Hindustan Times has brought back the crossword, by arrangement with The Times, London, which is running 23,005. May its number keep growing.

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