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Good old times! Mumbai's Joe Albuquerque shares his puzzles solving obsession

What started 30 years ago, as an activity to kill time, is now an obsession. A puzzle-solving enthusiast club’s only worry is that numbers are dwindling

STASHED away in one corner of Joe Albuquerque's Chira Bazaar flat, is a set of dust-layered books and dictionaries that emerge from the stack, every now and then. In between a difficult crossword, the 85-year-old picks up a hardbound, skims its pages for hidden solutions, before unsteadily scrawling alphabets on newsprint. There isn’t a time of the day when Albuquerque is not vexing over that 'word' or 'clue' that has left his grid barren.

Joe Albuquerque, a retired government official, says the club would meet at least thrice a week at his neighbour’s home to crack the clues, before posting their entries to publications. PIC/DATTA KUMBHAR
Joe Albuquerque, a retired government official, says the club would meet at least thrice a week at his neighbour’s home to crack the clues, before posting their entries to publications. PIC/DATTA KUMBHAR 

For the crossword enthusiast, who has been solving puzzles for 60 years, empty grids aren’t just an eyesore; they also put him on the back foot, making him question his obsessive hobby. These are also days when the retired government official, misses the tight company of his ‘crossword club’. They would meet at least three times a week at a neighbour’s home to crack the clues, before posting their entries to publications to bag the paltry token prize — a silly motivation, to keep their little game going. "If we were together, I wouldn't be struggling with my puzzles," Albuquerque rues as he shows us a half-complete crossword that he has been poring over since morning. Today, with their community of ageing friends either dwindling or having shifted base, technology provides some relief. Now, they try to make sense of the sometimes bizarre riddles that haunt their puzzle-solving skills over the cellphone. But, telephonic exchanges are reserved for the weekends, when they battle it out for the R200 cash prize, which is currently on offer only in the weekend edition of a national daily. On other days, Albuquerque continues to rack his brain alone.

Dombivli resident Ulhas Eknath Tare (61) learnt of Albuquerque from his neighbour’s student Chonkar. When Chonkar passed away, Tare decided to connect with Albuquerque. Now, the two speak over the phone twice a week, to discuss the Sunday crosswords. PIC/SATEJ SHINDE
Dombivli resident Ulhas Eknath Tare (61) learnt of Albuquerque from his neighbour’s student Chonkar. When Chonkar passed away, Tare decided to connect with Albuquerque. Now, the two speak over the phone twice a week, to discuss the Sunday crosswords. PIC/SATEJ SHINDE

Three’s a company
It was Albuquerque’s colleague Vijay Chonkar, who introduced him to the crossword in the 1950s. Then, the octogenarian was working with the Accountant General’s office in Marine Lines. "At the time, cryptic crosswords were very popular. Once you solved the crossword, you had to also coin a 'cryptic clue' for a word that had been suggested in the puzzle," he recalls.

With Chonkar's help, and years of practise, Albuquerque nearly mastered the skill. Crossword guides that he bought from city bookstores also came to his aid. He shows us a 1949 edition of The Complete Crossword Reference Book, which was one of his earliest purchases and continues to supplement the tips and strategies he has learnt over the years. But, it was only in the early 1980s that his hobby turned into a healthy fixation, bringing a group of people like him under one roof. "All thanks to mid-day which had started the giant/jumbo crossword in 1983," says 81-year-old Sundar Aiyer, another crossword fan, who moved to Bengaluru after retirement. Aiyer remembers how Albu-querque’s neighbour Anthony Mascarenhas, who used to work with him at a shipping agency, approached him one Friday.

“He brought along a jumbo crossword and asked me to suggest ‘cryptic clues’ for a particularly tricky word. In return, he said that Albuquerque and he would complete the entire puzzle,” says Aiyer. The following Monday, Aiyer went to Mascarenhas’ home with an ammo of cryptic clues. The trio, along with another neighbour, sent in multiple entries to the publication. “What’s interesting is that in our very first attempt, the three of us bagged the top three prizes, all gift vouchers to Churchgate’s Asiatic Store. The fourth friend won the consolation prize. It was a remarkable feat,” remembers Aiyer.

Ever since, the trio was inseparable, meeting up at least three times a week at Mascarenhas’ home. Others of the likes of Chonkar would join in the fun too. Before they realised, they had become one big team. “Sometimes, we’d spend the prize money to buy more crossword guides," laughs Albuquerque.

What made their past-time activity rather amusing is how they would go that extra mile to buy multiple copies of newspapers, and then submit their answers to the publication under the names of neighbours so that the publication didn’t suspect that it’s the same reader participating each time. “Most newspapers decided the winner based on lots, hence, we’d send as many entries as possible,” explains Albuquerque, adding that on his friends’ birthdays, he made it a point to send entries in their name. “If they won, I gave them the prize money as a gift.”

When Mascarenhas passed away in the mid 90s, the group didn’t break away, but getting older made travelling tough. Later, Aiyer moved to Bengaluru. Their, hobby, however, continued on phone. And new recruits helped.

Dombivli-based Ulhas Eknath Tare (61) learnt about Albuquerque from his neighbour's student Chonkar, who drew him into solving crosswords when he was only 15 years old. When Chonkar passed away, Tare decided to connect with the former’s old friend. "I dropped in at his place one day and we immediately bonded over crosswords,” says Tare, adding that solving the puzzle has helped him stay mentally alert. The two speak over the phone twice every week, to discuss Sunday crosswords that appear in the newspapers they subscribe to. Meanwhile, Aiyer, who is an expert — solving crosswords in 45 minutes — guides from Bengaluru. They continue to send in their entries for the weekend edition of a Hyderabad-based newspaper.

"Now, it’s just about staying busy," Albuquerque says. "People think I am crazy, but, it keeps me alive and happy."

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