Los Altos resident Viresh Ratnakar’s pursuit of clues began with doing crossword puzzles, then making them, then building the infrastructure hosting the puzzle itself.
You can use his free open-source software, Exolve, to create your own interactively solvable crosswords (and discover how he constructs his). At the bottom of this story you'll find a cryptic crossword, "Last Solo," Ratnakar created for Town Crier readers this week (see if you can notice a theme as you work it). He’s a regular crossword setter for The Hindu, one of India’s major English-language newspapers, and follows the British convention of using a playful pseudonym – Gussalufz – to sign his work. It’s a punning transliteration of “crossword” to Hindi.
Ratnakar deals in cryptic crosswords, which encode the answer in multiple ways, using wordplay to hint at a solution hidden within the clue.
“Each clue is a mystery in itself – you have the surface reading,” he explained, “that’s all a deception, because the clue allows itself to be parsed in a completely different way, where the word becomes a sequence of letters, or instructions to jumble them up, or take the first part of one and the second part of another.”
For a first-timer, the puzzles can be outrageously challenging. Here’s a spoiler from the puzzle Ratnakar set for Town Crier readers this month: Given the clue “What you might get by boiling meats badly,” you tease apart an anagram for meats to find your way to “steam.” This style of crosswords relies on subtle conventions of guidance that players have to learn over time – hints that puzzle setters use to point you in the right direction, if you only know how to read them. If a clue requires jumbled-up letters, it will include reference to being broken or shuffled around. If a hidden word must be surfaced, the clue might reference “provides,” “displays” or “features.” Trying to figure out what kind of solution can unlock each clue is a discipline in and of itself.
The puzzles don’t stop there – the grid itself has hidden words and secret messages (“ninas”), all often adding up to a uniting theme. A tribute to a German mathematician, for instance, might have a message’s letters hidden in the Sophie Germain primes.
“When I was in college, most Indian newspapers would carry a cryptic crossword, typically just a syndicated copy of something from a British newspaper, so I grew up doing those,” Ratnakar explained.
When he came to the U.S. for graduate school, his puzzle playing fell by the wayside until a few years ago, when he stumbled across online groups doing cryptic puzzles. He said the discipline attracts people who love to match wits, hailing from English-speaking communities around the world.
“You can be up at 2 a.m. and want to engage, and you just make up a clue, post it, and people will be awake in India and respond,” he said. “People who do cryptic crosswords, by and large, tend to have a fondness for humor and wit, so the community has a lot of bantering and lighthearted fun.”
Although Ratnakar sets puzzles only in English, he added support to Exolve for those who want to create crosswords in other languages such as Hindi. He said that a puzzle setter grows the seed of an idea, noticing more and more connections, as he or she builds an interlocking whole – and, ultimately, a “deep sense of satisfaction.”
“You are looking at current events, whatever is going on in your life, whatever you ate today, and then something clicks,” he said.