Gandhi at 150: Icon immortalised in special New York Times crossword, made by Indian

Investment banker Mangesh Ghogre went from a boy with limited vocabulary and no exposure to American culture to becoming the only Indian to have published crosswords in The New York Times—including a prestigious one to mark Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary on October 2, presented with a twist

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Oct 2, 2019 10:44:35 AM IST
Updated: Oct 2, 2019 12:04:54 PM IST

g_121855_mangesh_ghogre_280x210.jpgMangesh Ghogre, Investment banker
Image: Mexy Xavier


Leaves at four? (3)

A three-letter word for school teacher? I’m out of ideas.

“TEA!” he smiles. “Get it? Leaves that you have at 4 pm.”

How many Oscar speeches are delivered? (6)

Thirty? Another blank stare from me.

“This is a tricky one—‘IN-TEARS’!” he chuckles. “That’s how many Oscar speeches are delivered!”

I’ve just been introduced to what Crossword whizzes call a ‘cute clue’—marked with a question mark at the end, it means the clue contains a pun that is “meant to misguide, but entertain”.

It’s a coffee-fuelled morning at a tiny Starbucks table in Mumbai, which is now covered in newspaper clippings and hand-scrawled notes, and I’m getting a fascinating crash course from Mangesh Ghogre. The 39-year-old is the executive director and head of equity capital markets at investment bank Nomura India, and also the only Indian to have constructed crosswords for The New York Times (NYT)—the holy grail for puzzle enthusiasts. He has also been published in the LA Times and The Wall Street Journal, and this month is particularly special. On a quest to contribute to India’s global recognition, Ghogre has built a Gandhi-themed crossword to celebrate Bapu’s 150th birth anniversary, which the NYT has agreed to publish on October 2. Considering the paper gets about 150 crossword requests a week, this is prestigious, and no mean feat. Nor is his journey to getting here.

Starting on empty
As a teen, Ghogre grew up in Panvel and moved to Mumbai to study engineering, and like many of his peers, aimed to settle abroad. “It was common in those days—I’m talking about the 90s—to become an engineer and then take the GRE and GMAT [exams to study abroad],” says Ghogre.

The joke then was that at any decent engineering college, you could dig anywhere and a ‘word list’ for the GRE or GMAT’s vocabulary section would emerge. “For us, Indians from different parts of the country, English was not second nature,” he says. “We were never exposed to the sorts of words these exams tested, and few of us came from true English-medium schools in those days. So my hostel mates and I had an idea—we would get The Times of India every day, and its back page had a crossword. We thought solving that would be a good way to improve our vocabulary.”

About seven or eight students, including Ghogre, began to laboriously try to solve the crosswords—and quickly realised they didn’t know a single word. “Not even one,” he stresses. “We didn’t know this then but the crossword was actually American, syndicated from the LA Times.”

This was around 1997, when the Internet had yet to penetrate India, and even television cable had perhaps one English movie channel. “We had hardly any exposure to American culture, let alone its slang,” Ghogre recalls. “So most of the words just didn’t make sense to us.”

For example, ‘GREENBACK’ is American slang for dollars, as is ‘DOPE’; ‘SAWBUCK’ is a $10 bill. What we call a ‘toll plaza’ in India, is a ‘TURNPIKE’ in the US.

Ghogre began studying the solutions, which published in the paper the next day, even as his friends soon lost interest. “I was hooked to the idea of America, and learning all about it,” he tells me, fishing out a faded notebook that you can tell has seen better days. “So every day, I would write each and every clue and its solution, as I realised that crossword clues are often repeated.”

The pocket-sized notebook—which Ghogre says he shows his kids now—is just slightly tattered but speaks of a world of passion. There in ballpoint, in no fathomable order, lie words. On the left side of one page, all of them allude to Greek and Roman gods; on another corner, a list of rivers and their tributaries.

Slowly, Ghogre began to trace patterns. “Initially, it was small things. If a clue was plural, its answer would also be plural, so I would blindly fill out the letter ‘S’ on the grid,” he says. “But every day, I was learning. I learned Latin words, French words, Spanish words, like ‘un dos tres’ or ‘Les Miserables’. I learned the names of actors and actresses. I had never been to America, but those black-and-white squares became my window to the world.”

Ice hockey player Bobby Orr frequently finds himself on crossword grids, as his last name is easy to fit in, as does actress-singer Eva Gabor, whose first name is. “In fact, I named my daughter Eva after my favourite solution,” smiles Ghogre. “It starts with a vowel and ends with a vowel, and is easy to spread across a grid.”

‘Eva’ is a name of Christian origin, derived from the first lady, ‘Eve’, but Ghogre and his wife found a Hindu connection too. If you deconstruct the ancient mantra satymeva jayate [truth alone triumphs], it also contains the word ‘Eva’ within it.

Ghogre was hooked, to say the least. Even after engineering, when he would commute back and forth to his MBA college, he would solve the crossword, mildly frustrated that it was still all American. “This is around 2004-2005, and we had Google by now, so I had realised that the ToI crossword was entirely syndicated from LA Times,” he says. “By that time, I started reading a lot of crossword blogs, which had huge fan following, and would analyse every day’s puzzle.”

It would upset Ghogre to see that the byline was always an American name. “Years went by and I finally decided that I would have to make it. By 2006, I had become obsessed with research in this area, and realised that while I could make one, it was a long shot to get it published—there’s usually a long waiting list, and the papers usually have regular creators they work with,” he says. “So I started thinking about having my own work published in 2006; and my first crossword published in the LA Times in 2010.”

Ghogre’s ambition didn’t stray too far from home initially though. “Until then, the NYT hadn’t yet come into my life. To be very honest, my dream was to sit on a train and solve my own crossword in The Times of India. I knew that I had to get published in the LA Times to accomplish that, take the long route home,” he laughs.

After the first one, Ghogre said he had tasted blood. He published five or six more in the LA Times, then in a popular American puzzle magazine called Games. He had still never been to the US.

His next goal became to reach the NYT. “That was much, much tougher,” he says. “It’s really competitive. The NYT was the first paper to publish crosswords, initially as a distraction for soldiers after World War 2. They’ve been doing it for 75 years, and have shaped the community in many ways.”
The NYT doesn’t take email submissions—even now, they have to be mailed hard copies, because the editor wants to make notes as he reads them. Will Shortz, the paper’s crossword editor, is considered the ‘god’ of the crossword world; he has held his current position at the NYT since 1993, and is known to have designed his own degree curriculum in ‘enigmatology’, or the study of puzzles, and graduated himself in it. He is the only known person to hold this academic qualification.

Ghogre got a few rejections, but dogged on. Finally, in 2013, he had an acceptance. Usually, the theme of the crossword is the most important, and the deciding factor, but Ghogre decided to take the plunge and make it a theme-less crossword, with long, difficult answers. Typically, Mondays have the easiest crosswords, and Fridays and Saturdays, the toughest. Ghogre asked a seasoned American constructor to collaborate with him on this, and their work was published on a Friday. “A Friday debut!” he exclaims. “It was a dream come true. It spurred me to aim for something bigger.”

With a full-time job and a family with two children, Ghogre couldn’t aim for volume—his collaborator, for instance, made one puzzle a week. So he aimed for a big bang. “I decided to make a crossword for the 4th of July—America’s Independence Day,” he says. “I wanted it to be an India-US collaboration, so I approached another prolific American constructor to work with me on it.”

By this time, Ghogre had made another breakthrough. Will Shortz holds an annual crossword tournament in New York, and, impressed with Ghogre’s work so far, invited him to judge the competition. “That was the first time I stepped foot in the US,” he says. “And for the first time, I saw in real life, a dollar bill, a turnpike, a PBJ [peanut butter jelly sandwich], a BLT [bacon lettuce tomato sandwich]. You can imagine my thrill. For 15 years, I had seen this world through that small window of squares; and it really felt like I knew this world even when I got there. What was amazing to me was that what finally brought me here was not my banking work, but my passion for crosswords.”

Ghogre met with his collaborator, and broached the 4th of July idea. “He was excited about it, but warned me that more than 70 4th of July crosswords had already appeared in the NYT, and we would have to come up with a theme that hasn’t been used before,” he says. “It’s an iconic holiday, and one that Will Shortz is inundated with submissions for. It would really have to stand out.”

A crossword’s theme is determined by its longest answers. Ghogre’s idea was this: If you look at the phrase ‘Fourth of July’, it could mean 25 percent of July. If you divide the word up, you get J-U-L-Y. The longest answers, then, were: JAY-GATSBY; YOU-ARE-NOT-ALONE; ELLE MACPHERSON; and WHY-BOTHER.

J-U-L-Y.

Ghogre sent Shortz the crossword idea a full year before it was to publish; and began work on it two years prior; since it isn’t his full-time job, it takes a year for him to make a crossword of this calibre. All crosswords must be symmetrical, vertically and horizontally, and follow a 15x15 grid. Ghogre fetches out a laminated paper clipping to show me—there it is, the Fourth of July crossword, made via an Indian-American collaboration, and autographed by both creators as well as Will Shortz himself.

Deconstructing Gandhi
Ghogre didn’t want to stop there, and still wanted to do “something for India”. He toyed with the idea of making a crossword on an Indian icon, celebrated globally. “I was visiting Delhi, and saw a bunch of billboards for Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary last year,” he says. “I wondered if Will Shortz would accept Gandhi as the theme. I knew that we didn’t want a ‘Gandhi’ puzzle, or questions about him and his life. It has to be a play on Gandhi.”

He spent a few months thinking about this, and refining his idea. If you look at the word GANDHI, he says, you can break it up as ‘G-and-HI’. Ghogre devised an advanced-level ‘rebus’ crossword using this as the base—this means that in a single space, ‘G and HI’ or ‘GHI’ would be placed, in the middle of the longest words.

“It’s a risk—we’re expecting that people won’t complain that this is nonsense,” he says. “But there’s method to it.”

So for instance, one of the answers is ‘ROUGH-IDEA’; so one square contains GHI—‘R-O-U-GHI-D-E-A’. Another is HIGH-INCOME, similarly. ‘WEIGH-IN’. ‘LONG-HISTORY’.

Will Shortz sent a prompt response, saying he was definitely on board with doing this.

“I liked Mangesh’s GANDHI puzzle because, firstly, it’s a worthy subject for a tribute, and he incorporated a fresh, fun twist,” Shortz told Forbes India via email. “Even beyond the theme, the puzzle will be fun to solve, finely constructed with lively vocabulary. In addition, Mangesh added bonus Indian references, with words like ‘Delhi’, ‘roti’ and ‘Brahma’. Mainly, I want solvers to enjoy the puzzle, which I think they will; and if, for a moment, it makes them think about one of the greatest men in history, then all the better.”

“October 2 will be one of the biggest days of my life, my debut solo in the NYT,” Ghogre says. “And for such a grand occasion! I feel like I’ve done something for my country. What could be better than that?”

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