Tuesday, 26 January 2010

A tete-a-tete with Shuchismita Upadhyay (Shuchi)

Shuchismita Upadhyay in her blog, Crossword Unclued, has interviewed a few solvers. Now the tables are turned (she is not the one to duck!) and she cheerfully fields a few questions from two or three of us sent to her by email.


Q1: Tell us something about yourself and your background.

Shuchi: This happens often with me: I say one thing about myself, and someone else who knows me well says the opposite. I’m probably different in different contexts.

I take interest in many things, which are sometimes thought of as mutually exclusive – programming, cooking, poetry, celeb fashion, to name a few. I also write another blog that my crossword friends might not know about – it’s about theatre, called DramaDose.

I live in Bangalore, and like every second Bangalorean, work in the IT industry.

Q2: How did you get into this pastime?

Shuchi
: I've solved word puzzles since as long as I can remember. An early memory is of my Uncle (who would’ve made a fine crossword setter, if he had pursued his talent) creating for my cousins and me word games to work on. These were similar to the clue types of cryptic crosswords, like anagrams and hidden words. (Hindonyms were his idea, too.)

Later in high school, my dad encouraged me to read the financial papers. We used to get the Economic Times at home, and the crossword in this paper quickly caught my fancy. To my dad’s great happiness, I was always to be found poring over ET when he returned from work. That my financial acumen remained woefully inadequate is another story.

Q3: Solving Crosswords stems from an interest in the English Language. How did you acquire that?
Shuchi: I think it stems from more than an interest in the English language, such as an interest in logical reasoning. Frankly, I have no idea how I acquired the interest. Some things are wired into us, maybe?

Q4: Any person or book who influenced you into taking more interests in Crosswords?

Shuchi
: If not a person or book, many external factors did shape my approach towards crosswords.

The mess in my college hostel had a role to play, in expanding the range of crosswords I solved. They had a supply of several newspapers. There I got into solving The Hindu and Indian Express, in addition to ET.

By the time I completed college, I was a pretty confident solver.

When I started work, I was doing 14-hour workdays and crosswords took a backseat, but I did one whenever I could squeeze in the time.

An incident in 2002 had a strong impact on me. I was living in Ashford (UK) at that time, and was staying with a friend over the weekend. She was reading a paper on which the crossword was printed, and I mentioned casually that I solve those. She replied wide-eyed, impossible you can’t, they’re too tough. I jumped at the bait and repeated, yes I can, try me. Finally I took the paper, picked up a pen, poised to fill in the squares starting at clue 1.

To my utter consternation, I discovered that I couldn’t solve it. After 30 minutes of struggle, I had not even half-finished.

I realized crosswords could be far more challenging than what I was used to.

The internet revolutionized my crosswording experience. There is now easy access to the best sort of puzzles. A wealth of information is available, and the opportunity to discuss crosswords with others who share our hobby.

All of this has influenced my interest in crosswords.

Q5: The acumen for dissecting clues comes from experience on the subject or from books. Which route did you take to get there?
Shuchi
: I think it is the degree of our involvement which makes the most difference to how well we learn/appreciate something. That’s true of crosswords, too.

Participating in crossword communities helps to keep one thinking. Colonel’s blog and the THC forum on Orkut provide that valuable platform to THC solvers.

I want to read more books about cryptic crosswords, but I have hardly read any so far.

Q6: Did you graduate from straightforward to cryptic or did you get directly into the latter? Which was the first crossword you solved?
Shuchi: Cryptics directly. I started solving with the Economic Times.

Q7: Do you solve on paper, machine or both and which do you find more comfortable?

Shuchi: I prefer solving on paper, but sometimes don’t have that option when I am solving from home (I don’t own a printer).

Q8: What is your technique for solving?

Shuchi
: I skim through to find what I can answer without crossings – these are usually anagrams, hidden words, the very long or very short ones. I keep an eye on the crossed clues and see if I can answer them, sometimes guessing the word from its crossings and then verifying it against the clue. It’s pretty random.

I generally solve on the bus ride back home from work, with pauses for conversation or for looking out of the window. After I reach home, I visit the blog for the crossword to read its analysis.

Q9: Your view on electronic aids for solving?
Shuchi: Not evil, but not fun. I wrote about this here - Crossword Solving Aids.

Q10: Any favourite setters and why? Name one favourite Indian and one foreign setter.

Shuchi: It is extremely difficult to pick favourites; there are different qualities I like in different setters. I like Don Manley for the beauty of his clue surfaces, Brendan for his creative themed puzzles, Alberich for his always elegant clues, Anax for the sheer genius with which he creates misdirection.

If I am asked at gunpoint to name only one favourite Indian and one foreign setter, I’ll probably say Vinod Raman (who can whip up anagrams like magic) and Paul Halpern (whose clues I find very witty).

I also wonder why we must categorize setters as ‘Indian’ and ‘foreign’. A cryptic crossword setter is a cryptic crossword setter, regardless of his/her place of origin/residence. When we say that a setter is masterly or pedestrian, we base our opinion on parameters that are not country-dependent. Then why must we stress so much on classifying them by country?

Q11: A good solver turns into a good compiler. Have you considered that next stage?
Shuchi: "A good solver turns into a good compiler" - not necessarily. I find that solving and setting are different skills, and the best solvers may not be the best compilers (and vice-versa).

I do try my hand at clue-writing occasionally. I’ve posted clues on my blog and sometimes participate in Anax’s CWC. Setting is much harder than solving!

Q12: Which Crosswords do you solve nowadays? I believe you blog on one of the UK Crosswords; tell us something about how you got into that.

Shuchi
: I like to have variety. In a week I solve about 3 each of Guardian, FT, Times and the occasional Independent crossword.

I blog about the Financial Times crossword, on a group blog called Fifteensquared. They had a blogging slot free and I was interested to join them - that’s how I got into it.

Q13: How do Indian Crosswords compare with others in entertainment value? Do British Crosswords make you smile more often than Indian ones?
Shuchi: I’m assuming “Indian Crosswords” means The Hindu Crossword. Otherwise, I’ll be repeating most of what I said for Q10 :-).

Not all British crosswords are equal. The crossword in the free paper on London train stations is not of the same quality as the Times. Even on the same paper, the entertainment value of the puzzle can have wide variation by setter.

If I narrow the question to compare the best of The Hindu Crossword with the best of crosswords in British dailies, then in my view, THC currently falls short of the sophistication and creativity we see in British crosswords. I think THC is in grave need of a crossword editor.

Q14: What is the view of your family members regarding your Crossword solving?

Shuchi: My family and friends know vaguely that I solve crosswords and write a blog about it, but they don’t take much notice. I seldom discuss crosswords in my ‘non-cyber avatar’.

Q15: Any tips for budding setters?

Shuchi: As someone who makes raw attempts at setting, these tips are as applicable for me as for anyone else –
· Solve good crosswords; you’ll learn what you practice.
· Participate in clue-writing contests. There are some very good ones where published setters too take part and qualified judges evaluate the entries.
· Let others solve your clues/grids. Listen to feedback without taking a defensive stance.


Q16: What was the inspiration for starting your blog ‘Crossword Unclued’? How do you come up with post-ideas?

Shuchi
: My friend Ankur who writes a widely-read blog about software automation testing, encouraged me to start blogging, and set up Crossword Unclued for me so that I could put my “crossword energy to constructive use”, as he says.

I took to blogging very soon and was brimming with ideas of what to write about. It felt like an outlet for conversations that I earlier had inside my head.

Many post ideas get triggered while solving the day’s crosswords. Sometimes one idea leads to another, and a chain of blog posts takes shape.

Other items follow a long-term plan, like those about clue types or grids. I write those bit by bit on weekends and when ready, schedule the posts for publication over the next few days. Some items take a while to complete - the one about Ninas was in my Drafts folder for many months waiting for an appropriate example before I hit Publish. I also take permission from the setters/editors if I’m putting a large part of their work on the blog.

A challenge I face is of creating something of interest for a wide audience - solvers both new and experienced, from different geographies who solve puzzles from different papers. I try to balance the content so that everyone finds something to enjoy or learn.

Q17: What's the best compliment you've received in your crosswording/ crossword-blogging experience?
Shuchi: Whenever people write to say that my blog has helped to build their interest in crosswords, or improved their solving, it’s very rewarding.


Tailpiece

I hope you all enjoyed the interview as much as I enjoyed formulating it and putting it up on my blog.
Tomorrows post will be up at 9 PM only to enable everyone to read this post.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks Col. for blowing Shuchi's trumpet (If I may say so.)Very interesting and an opportunity to know a little more about her. I would be happy if she mentions in her blog about the interview and gives a link to it.

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  2. I am sure she will put the link on her blog

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  3. It is very good to read Shuchi's interview whose blog I have been following very closely...

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  4. Dear Col, Thanks a ton for this post.I was reminded of the recent Devil's Advocate episode on CNN-IBN, where Karan Thapar switched sides and was grilled by Mani Shankar Aiyar:) .Jokes apart, this made for a very interesting read. The fact that I can now put a face to the name "Shuchi" serves as the icing on the cake.

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  5. Thank you Colonel for providing a glimpse of a really fascinating personality. I was always curious to know more about Shuchi(the Orkut profile does not say much). Her blog is a great help to a newbie like me.

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  6. Very interesting and informative. My compliments not only to Shuchi but also to those who posed those probing kind of
    questions.

    Richard

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  7. Dear Colonel,

    This was indeed a very fascinating thing to have. The interview is very informative and insightful, especially for the people who are new to Crossword solving. The interview was a very engaging read, in particular, Shuchi's take on Indian and foreign crossword setters , tips for budding setters are food for thought.
    Shuchi, thanks a lot for the interview which is very motivating. I wish you all the best for the continuing good work you have been doing and am sure, the rewards you mentioned in the interview will continue to grow :-)

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  8. Thoroughly enjoyed the interview. Thanks for the mention :)

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  9. Thanks Colonel and Suchi for the engaging conversation. Both your blogs have been very inspirational for my crossword solving interest and abilities which otherwise was more of a pastime. Now it has become a mandate. The learning is immense. Thanks again.

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  10. I always wondered wht the 'crossword woman' looked like ... To my great joy, she was not cross but rather, was smiling :)
    A great read .. fantastic questioning and answering ...
    Thanks a lot, Colonel and indeed Shuchi ..

    Cheers

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  11. Awesome.
    P.S. - w.r.t. Q.14 - I have tried to follow up the blogs and am very appreciative of her fabulous work/efforts. Popularity has just started to seep in and in no time shall it grow magnificently. All the very best.

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  12. First of all, I should congratulate you for having started this blog. This is a great forum to spread the word (pun intended) about this great scientific and orderly art of cruciverbalism. I have been advocating that Cryptic crosswords should form a part of school and college syllabus. Students will forget the uppers of lowers of drugs as they will get hooked to this hobby.

    There is nothing like an Indian or foreign cryptic crossword. Yes, the Hindu crossowrd is one with the Indian flavour but then all the London papers have now featured Indian words. As you rightly say, cryptic crosswords cross all boundaries of caste, creed and religion and regions. Even sky is not the limit, nor are the Hades. It is so open-ended as the Web which has opened up the world all around us..

    Yes, the HIndu crossword should have an editor. Crosswords are ignored by all papers and magazines as space-fillers (again here, the pun is intended)and hence no one cares about the mistakes that can annoy a solver. For starters, the editor can ensure that the blocks are blacker than the blanks as the blocks almost merge with the blanks. I was editing a Newsletter for the Narobi Club where a crossword adorned its last page, as a space filler, and no one cared to check the mistakes in the clues,blanks and blocks and worst of all, the numbering in the brackets. It was a mere cut and paste affair from a London paper and I was so annoyed to see mistakes being repeated even after my corrections, in this Desk top publishing era. Many a times, I had sent in my own grid, after solving the corrected version to the local papers in Nairobi. As for the Editorship, why not you or any of the solvers from our group? The net and blogs like yours have made cryptic crosswords popular and help us in social networking. I'm not blog-savvy and I do find it difficult to interact and thanks to Schuchi, I get by via the email. Again, in the Hindu Crossword corner, why not publish the whole grid? it is so annoying to work without the very essential blocks and blanks. Any ideas, Schuchi?

    Your blog is so useful to beginners and novitiates.

    All the interviews so far have had stock questions and answers, but in your case,it is refreshingly different.

    I agree with Schuchi when she says that she prefers paper and pen solving. Online solving can be fun but the pleasure is not complete. The different is the same as between emails and receiving posted letters. The personal touch is very important.

    Keep up the good work, folks and may our tribe increase. God bless you solvers with many more years of happy solving, which is the only boon I'd ask of Him if at all.

    Lastly,. MY question to you, Schuchi, does it not take away the fun of solving the Hindu or other Cryptics when postings are done of the answers , post-haste?

    RAJU UMAMAHESWAR

    PS- I wrote a whole lot of comments and it got gobbled up in cyberspace, unbeknown to me and had to redo the whole thing again.!!

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  13. @raju: ...does it not take away the fun of solving the Hindu or other Cryptics when postings are done of the answers , post-haste?

    Posting may be done post-haste but we can read at leisure. It's up to us to look at the answers only after we've tried our best with the crossword.

    [You might also like to read Col. Gopinath's interview with The Hindu, where he says he finishes much sooner than he publishes.]

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  14. All the interviews so far have had stock questions and answers, but in your case,it is refreshingly different.

    Thanks to everyone who sent me the questions :) I enjoyed answering very much.

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