Shashwat Salgaocar’s first brush with crosswords was at his grandmother’s home as a kid, with nothing but a serendipitously placed stack of newspapers for company. Years later, he encountered them again in college. But it was only in 2014, when Facebook algorithms led him to a group called Cryptic Crossword Society, that he got truly hooked.
“Social media has made it easier to form gaming communities that were earlier limited to indie blogs. There are thriving spaces on Facebook and Twitter today to discuss daily crosswords, talk about your favourite clues, and admit your facepalm moments. One can even interact with crossword constructors on these forums,” says Salgaocar, who was the 2021 runner-up in the Indian Crossword League. “Digital publications, mobile apps, and social media have gone a long way in making crosswords more accessible,” he says.
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Meanwhile, writer Anuradha Santhanam got into crosswords in her childhood thanks to her mother. Much like sharing Wordle scores, the two still do crosswords together — over WhatsApp. “Every day, around 8 am, we send each other pictures of how much we’ve solved,” she says. “In this way, our tradition has kept on going.”
But her mother is not the only person Santhanam solves crosswords with. “I’m now part of crossword groups on WhatsApp, where we set — and share — cryptic clues,” Santhanam says. “It’s really fun to collaborate, and it democratises the whole thing. You will have a seasoned solver in their 60s or 70s, alongside a beginner who is learning by observation and osmosis.”
Santhanam and Salgaocar are just two examples of a slow but sure phenomenon gripping young people: ‘collaborative cruciverbalism’, or the act of doing crosswords as an interactive group activity, rather than solving solo. “Collaborative solving majorly took off in the pandemic, as a way for people to be apart yet deeply engaged together,” Adrienne Raphel, author of Thinking Inside the Box, a book tracing the history and evolution of crosswords, says. “The Internet and the crossword get along fantastically…one of the coolest impacts I’ve seen is it really encourages cultures of collaboration — seasoned cruciverbalists regularly mentor newbies…and people have really strengthened community ties in a field that can feel quite solitary.”
Raphel’s words hold true for me — my own tryst with crosswords also began during the pandemic. I noticed that I’d find myself craving that hour of rest and concentration via the grid, as I would get to think about something other than death, waves and the new variants. I was always interested in words and trivia (I’m a writer and quizzer), and research proves that sufficiently challenging crosswords help with reducing anxiety. But soon, I had a third reason driving my hobby — I brought in my friends.
Swapnil Sinha, a student at IIM Calcutta, had subscribed to the online crosswords of an American site to keep himself entertained during the pandemic, a fact he innocently announced on our eight-member group chat. What followed is slightly immoral (if not illegal) — we seized his means of entertainment, cajoling him into sharing his screen so that all of us could solve together. In almost two years now, I’ve missed Crossword Night only once, and that was during my sister’s wedding. Otherwise, come rain, hail, or Covid-19, the grid has never stopped.
“I hadn’t planned on this becoming a group activity. In fact, I didn’t think crosswords could be a group activity, but it’s actually more fun with all of you,” Sinha admits, finally, after two years of cribbing about having to share his screen. “Having three-four people solve the puzzle means that we can work together, build on each other’s thoughts, and crack clues that none of us could do alone.”
It has been proven that diverse teams solve problems better, and the same applies for cruciverbalism. “In the world of crosswords, many heads are better than one,” agrees Salgaocar. After all, not making progress alone can be frustrating, and demotivating. Santhanam too highlights how in her group, someone will correctly parse part of a clue, and others piggyback on that to solve the puzzle. This appeals to newcomers, says Anjali Mallena, the convenor of the Word Games Club of IIT Madras, because the sharing of annotations and tips makes learning easier. “It also brings life to the activity itself.”
Amitabh Ranjan of Extra-C, a body that hosts inter-school and college crossword contests, explains that the Internet also helped collaborative cruciverbalism overcome geographical handicaps. “For a vast country like India, despite our best efforts, distance poses a problem. The Internet solved that. We witnessed participants from all regions in the country vying for the honours at our events in large numbers.”
What was seen as a quintessential ‘old people’ activity is now a great way for youngsters to exercise their brains, and crossword creators are happy to evolve with the times. “The crossword as a technology has changed remarkably little since the early 1900s, yet the form continues to have ever-greater capacity to respond to contemporary ideas,” Raphael says, adding that she is constantly blown away by constructors’ ingenuity with the grid. “The rules provide just enough resistance for constructors to find new ways to design clever grids; they use the rigidity itself to push the envelope.”
Examples include ‘quantum puzzles’ which can have multiple solutions, such as Ben Tausig’s gender-fluid puzzle, where certain squares can be equally solved with an M or an F. And much before the meteoric rise of Wordle (created by Josh Wardle for his girlfriend), a crossword setter used his grid to propose to his to-be wife.
Collaborative cruciverbalism makes brainstorming a bonding exercise, and winning and failing at crosswords can bring groups closer together. And I’ve learned that with the right people, even wrong answers can be fun.
“What’s a four-letter word for drive around?” I ask Swapnil, frowning at the clue for 9-Across. GEDI, he types in.
We both know it’s wrong — there is no way a century-old English paper would be using Punjabi slang. But we get in a good laugh and then proceed to absolutely smash the puzzle in our quickest time yet.
Ria Chopra is a freelance culture journalist whose work has been featured in VICE, BuzzFeed, Insider, Refinery29, and other publications.