We are fond of stories which describe the ascent made by Indians from modest origins. If such stories narrate quirky success stories then so much the better. Mangesh Ghogre’s success belongs to this category. Over the past 15 years, this engineering graduate from Panvel, a suburb of Mumbai, has become one of the leading crossword constructors in the world: “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.”
Even more interesting than Ghogre’s achievement is how he achieved his mastery in crossword construction: ““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.”…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…I had never been to America, but those black-and-white squares became my window to the world.”…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….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.””
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