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The face behind the chequered grids


`I scrawled on the sand for time-pass once, and was roundly scolded by elders for not sticking to my studies'

LEGEND HAS it that Indira Gandhi could complete The Times crossword in two minutes flat. Khushwant Singh is a great crossword buff, and a good many bureaucrats whom one doesn't associate with such an absorbing pastime are anything but clueless about how to clear this maze of little black and white squares.

And then, there are studies that reveal that five out of 10 people who commute long distances to work are addicted to crosswords, something that nearly every newspaper carries every day. In Mumbai, thousands of commuters are adept at deciphering clues, literally on their feet, with one hand holding their office bag and the other clinging to the iron post to keep from falling.

Here's a clue. Let's say "1 Across, HIJKLMNO (five letters)." Any self-respecting crossword enthusiast will tell you right away, and rightly, that it is "H{-2}0," or "WATER." And "3 Down," with a blank, eight letters, is even easier. It is "CLUELESS." These, incidentally, topped a survey that rated the best clues, some years ago.

Well, clues like these may be the lifeline to long-distance commuters everywhere. But has anyone wondered where these classic clues that make crossword solving an absorbing pastime come from?

And who are the folks who make humdrum commuting a cerebral activity? After all, the times when crossword solving was a revenue-earning proposition, with big prize-money, is a thing of past.

All the same, crossword puzzles get solved every day, millions of times, in dozens of languages. And that brings us to that special breed of people but for whom the world would be quite clueless about crosswords, cryptic or simple. The fellas who actually create the clues, and make grids to fit them in.

Like A.N. Prahlada Rao. To most people, he is the Public Relations Officer, Bangalore Mahanagara Palike. To readers of newspapers and magazines in Kannada, he is a modest little byline in a corner of the crossword puzzle that appears in all of them.

Every week, he composes at least 15 puzzles, and he has been doing it for years. In fact, he has nearly 1,000 puzzles to his credit, which appeared in Prajavani, Vignana Sangathi, Samyukta Karnataka, Aragini, Shakthi, Mangala, Karmaveera, Vijaya Karnataka, and Ee Sanje.

It started as a pastime, and of course, Rao began as a solver, not maker of crosswords.

"I scrawled on the sand for time-pass once, and was roundly scolded by elders for not sticking to my studies,'' he remembers.

He was always inclined to be literary and quite emotional about the world of words. Crossword solving in Kannada or English was also an education. He soon became a cornucopia of trivia, and one day decided to have a shot at creating his own puzzle, just for a lark.

He enjoyed it immensely, and soon, he was commandeering all the trivia at his disposal for creating puzzles, and readers who could never have enough were gorging on the theme-puzzles that he specialised in. Crime and police, cinema, art, literature, cuisine, celebrities, politics, everything falls into the grid just like Rao orchestrates.

There's practically no money in it. But for Rao, that's what makes it rewarding to create crosswords.

He also dabbles in making quizzes for magazines, and happily, his hobby and his profession have never been at cross-purposes. To celebrate his devotion to his passion, when he built his house, Rao had a crossword grid of black-and-white tiles installed on the front wall.

He joined the Karnataka Information Department in 1983, and between assignments as a PR person at events such as the Vishwa Kannada Sammelana (1995), the SAARC Conference in 1987, the Indian International Film Festival in 1991, the Mahamastakabhishekha in Sharavanabelagola in 1995, and the 1997 National Games, the crossword never left him.

In the beginning, it took him two hours to finish composing one puzzle. Now, he is done in 20 minutes. A website is a dream that might just about come true, and meanwhile, his own reference material, particularly on cinema, is there to fall back on.

A Kannada crossword dictionary on the Web, and crossword-inspired programmes on the electronic media are the stuff of Rao's dreams.

Some of his passion has rubbed off on his family. And his wife, who is a cinema buff, helps him compose many a filmy crossword.

When last heard, Rao was mulling over a suggestion to compose a crossword whose answers would be classic Kannada proverbs.

He sounded like he was tickled pink by the idea, and when we said goodbye, he asked: "Let me see, how does one create a clue for a proverb in Kannada about falling at the feet of a donkey if it means getting what you want?''

Watch the grids for more on Rao. Did anyone say, who is this namesake of Hiranyakashipu's son, seven letters?

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