As we grow older, we are told that the best way to keep our brain sharp is to solve crosswords or Sudoku. I am addicted to both but am not sure if this is helping to boost my brain power.

In my family, the fight for the newspaper was a struggle for power. This epic battle was always won by my father who got first dibs at it and the rest of us meekly surrendered this precious prize to him even if we laid our hands on it first. It was an unwritten rule. While we children waited for him to peruse the paper, the booking started. Cries of ‘I’m next’ rent the air amid arguments over who said it first. However, a stern glance from over the newspaper put an end to the dissent. Of course we were interested in the comics section and the word games but my father knew better than to hand out pages to us. In the scramble for possession, the pages would be returned to him bearing signs of a tug of war.

For the cruciverbalist or avid crossword puzzle solver, the puzzle is something to be savoured and time spent on it is well worth the effort. Making sense of the cryptic clues is a challenge and the sense of satisfaction in deciphering the convoluted mind of the setter is indescribable. The clue that refuses to yield an answer despite hours of thought is the one that haunts you for the rest of the day. It’s like that tune you find yourself humming but are unable to place.

When I was living in Dubai and came home for a holiday, I lived with my sister who jealously guarded the newspapers every morning from my marauding hands. Her morning ritual was to lay out the newspapers on the dining table as I sat across her, eyeing those sheets of paper. As I waited patiently, she would deign to hand me the tabloid section of one newspaper with strict instructions on what I could do. The crossword puzzles were hers and I was allowed to do one Sudoku out of two. Although solving Sudoku wasn’t her forte, she insisted on trying to do one. After all it was her newspaper! After a while, when she had made a mess of her Sudoku, she would generously tell me I could finish it. Now if there’s one thing I hate it is finishing someone else’s botched effort. The offer would be haughtily declined.

I continued to sit there as she tackled the crosswords. Every now and then she would read out a clue, asking for help. She would be met with an ominous silence. That was like rubbing salt in my wounds. After what seemed ages, the paper would be tossed at me to peruse. I was tempted to ignore that peace offering but beggars can’t be choosers, right?

Now I sit with my newspapers in my own home with no one to fight over the crosswords or Sudokus and I am in seventh heaven. I read somewhere that the height of egotism is doing The New York Times crossword puzzle with a pen. I do use a pen but what I tackle are crosswords that aren’t as complicated as those in the paper mentioned above.

With the pandemic ensuring we have time on our hands, crossword puzzles have seen a surge of popularity. Although there are many Indians who take part in international clue setting competitions, most publications in India carry syndicated crosswords from UK newspapers which have regional references rather than using Indian solvers who would appeal to an Indian audience.

I remember how impressed I was when I heard that a retired army officer living near us set cryptic crosswords for a reputed Indian newspaper. Now that is a skill indeed.

Vanaja Rao is a freelance writer based in Hyderabad, India