Mon, 04 Sep 2000

Of puzzles, passions and politics

By Pavan Kapoor

JAKARTA (JP): Every day, millions of people all over the world escape into the black and white checkered square called a crossword puzzle, where idyllically every problem has an interlocking solution. "Crosswording" has reached such epidemic proportions in the last part of the millennium that the Oxford Guide to Word Games declared the crossword as the "most widespread and popular game" in the puzzles arena.

There are crossword puzzles in every language of the world and it is only fitting to give the history of this king of games some due respect. At Christmas, 1913, the New York World published the first crossword by Arthur Wayne, which unlike today's square or rectangular grid was diamond shaped. It had 32 interlocking words and Arthur had named it "word cross" and it was for the specific purpose of boosting the readership of the daily.

Here was a game that was to challenge the mind while one sat in solitude and peace. It was just a matter of time before books on the all-engrossing game began to be published and sold like secondhand branded goods in a flea market. Today when I walk out of a building to my car, it is not surprising to see a group of drivers deeply engrossed in the daily crossword with a leaky pen.

Crossword became a buzzword and crossword mania spread to the fashion world, with women sporting black-and-white dresses with crossword motifs.

People seem to like the idea of forgetting big problems by solving small ones. So much so that today, there is a word for someone who knows the art of solving a crossword and is familiar with many of the standard terms used to fill up small squares so that the words will eventually interlock. This evolved art is called Crosswordese.

Every crossword addict knows that a two-letter word for the Sun God is Ra. It is used frequently to fill up small spaces. Then there is a five-letter word for a "native of Muscat", which is Omani.

A four-letter word for a "Greek Porch" is a "Stoa"; a four- letter word for "Scottish hillside" is "brai". But for one unaccustomed to Crosswordese these are unfamiliar facts.

This is a whole world of Crosswordese, where people wear Japanese sashes called "obis", Feudal slaves called "esnes" abound and where there are always gods and goddesses to fall back upon -- Hera, Odin and Thor.

Even The Jakarta Post has a little treat for crossword maniacs and keeps them in suspense until the next day, when the answers are revealed -- by when people have either: torn their hair out over an unsolved clue; called the newspaper editorial office and asked the Satpam (security guard) to hand over the first copy of the next day's Post; bugged friends, relatives and enemies if they knew a three-letter word for a Chinese pagoda.

However, there is one type of Crosswordese that is played in real life that fails to entertain and arouse people to put on their thinking caps. Politics is so similar to Crosswordese, in which the people in charge seem to be flailing at the next step while wondering if their last one "across" will connect with the words that go branching "down".

Just as a crossword puzzle would perplex the solver and nudge him to start from the bottom so that both ends meet in the middle, sadly politics is very much the same -- only that very often nothing meets in the middle and there is no connection, leaving the lives of millions hanging in midair.

Just as in a crossword a seven-letter word will not do where a six-letter word is required, in the same way politicians cannot use strategy A where strategy B is required.

Men in power show an obsessive quality to achieve a means to their end. The same thread of obsessive desire to find the solution to a clue has people scouring books and frantically calling newspapers to find the three-letter word for a flightless bird, a large antelope or any other animal. Or perhaps it is a perfect reason why in the contemporary lexicological lifestyle of people, two total strangers desperate for an answer can put their heads together on a train or bus and ponder over a three-letter word for "the Old West".

A friend stated it would be a good idea if the Constitution were amended to make it compulsorily for all ministers and members of the Legislature to solve one crossword every day.

By the way, would you know an eight-letter word for "a cop's command"? The only one coming to my mind are two five-letter ones: uang rokok (cigarette money).