Crosswords in lockdown

The clock and the calendar — two major markers of time are often being ignored as many work from home and societies around the world miss public festivals and seasons due to Covid-19-induced lockdowns. But there’s one thing that still helps people connect with the time of the year — the Comics and Crossword section of the newspaper.

Popular syndicated comic strips have always marked special events and occasions, albeit of the regions they originate in. You can always tell Christmas is approaching when decorated trees and brightly wrapped packages start showing up in the cartoon strips. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comic strip about a young family, office colleagues, an army camp or a department store — they will all be talking about Santa Claus and gift-shopping. Soon, beach umbrellas and bicycles will show up in those panels, even if reading about them may be all the summer fun that some societies get this year.

Want something more stimulating and long lasting than the couple of minutes it takes to read the comics? Get into the crossword habit. Just like the comics, crosswords also offer clues to seasons and occasions. Last month, around Easter, the answers in my daily crossword included “bunny ears” and “hare brained”. For Mother’s Day earlier this month, a newspaper in Canada (where I live) brought out “The Mother of all Crosswords”. For over a month, crossword puzzles have referred to a variety of annuals and perennials, in a nod to the start of the gardening season.

For aficionados like me, no day is complete without tackling — and solving — the cryptic crossword of the day. Weekends often bring a bonus, from crosswords with themes to giant grids. I was introduced to crosswords at a very young age by my father, as a tool to improve my vocabulary and possibly as a means of keeping me quiet and occupied for some time. It was a thrill to help him at first, watching and learning to unravel the secrets of cryptic clues. Over the years I learnt to identify familiar patterns and mechanisms employed to denote certain ploys like anagrams, run-on words and abbreviations. But the really satisfying clues are the ones that challenge your vocabulary, general knowledge, tying these together with cockney accents, spoonerisms and catchphrases to produce a solution that can leave you feeling like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mount Everest.

Longtime compilers for popular crosswords like the ones in The The New York Times often have their trademark signatures hidden in the clues and legions of loyal fans. Whole blogs are dedicated to solving these puzzles, with detailed explanations for each solution. And some solutions may indeed be cryptic enough to warrant an explanation. Optical illusions aren’t just for images, they can disguise words as well. For instance, a “flower” in a crossword may not always be of the botanical variety, it could be a geographical feature, as in a river or stream that flows. A “number” need not be mathematical, it could be an anesthetic. Sometimes I have had to construct the solution in discrete blocks using the clues, arriving at an unfamiliar word or phrase. Recent discoveries for me included the word almoner and a Nissen House. Perhaps following Shashi Tharoor on Twitter might help. But even with the worldwide web at your fingertips, searching online for the solution is taboo. Don’t do it, even though nobody is watching.

Just as they capture events on a calendar, crosswords also often reflect contemporary culture and language. References to India in British and American crosswords have evolved from the archaic “vada pav”. I wonder how long it will take for coronavirus-related language to show up on the grids. I can think of a couple of contenders from where I live: The phrase “speaking moistly”, immortalised by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while encouraging the use of face masks; and the globally popular “covidiots”. It’s also surprising that US President Donald Trump’s epic three-year-old contribution, “covfefe”, has not yet figured in any crossword that I have tackled.

At a time when so many of us are confined to our homes, crosswords provide an intellectually challenging alternative to passive binge-watching. They also reinforce the value of newspapers — it is infinitely more satisfying to solve a crossword puzzle on paper than online or on a smartphone. But be careful how you do it. According to an anonymous quote, an optimist is someone who starts a crossword puzzle with a pen instead of a pencil.


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