The Last Word

Crossword aficionados remember a favourite setter

PC Jayaraman, also known as Sankalak, with his wife Vimala. courtesy Jayashankar Jayaraman

ON 15 FEBRUARY, The Hindu Crossword Corner, a blog focused on The Hindu’s daily crossword, announced that the veteran setter Sankalak (“Compiler” in Sanskrit) had passed away the day before, aged eighty-two. Tributes poured in, filled with shock and sadness, from many who considered Sankalak their favourite setter. One admirer called him “a nonpareil setter with superb, smooth style”; another remembered that “his clues were probing but gentle, and gave you a fair chance.”

Sankalak was the pen name of PC Jayaraman, a retired career diplomat who worked with the commerce ministry back when it was still called the ministry of foreign trade. He had a knack for creating cryptic crosswords, games of vocabulary and logic between the setter and the solver in which the clues are puzzles in themselves, with solutions hidden in them—as anagrams, for instance. Jayaraman’s crosswords have been appearing in The Hindu for twenty-two years.

Many remember Jayaraman especially fondly for his clever yet simple clues. Shuchismita Upadhyay, author of the blog Crossword Unclued, said, “The Hindu crossword is considered to be quite difficult and there is a learning curve. Sankalak’s crosswords are usually easier and encouraging for beginners. At the same time they are elegant.” Kishore Rao, who has been setting cryptic crosswords for The Hindu for more than two years, agreed. “A setter is not out to challenge his solver by saying ‘I am cleverer than you,’” he said. Instead, a setter’s job is to say, “I want to tease you a little but let you win at the end.” Jayaraman, he said “was really good at that.”

In a 2011 interview with Upadhyay, Jayaraman said his preoccupation with cryptic crosswords began in the 1970s. While working at Delhi’s Udyog Bhavan, he spent fifteen minutes during his lunch break every day pondering the crossword from the London Times, which appeared in The Statesman. In 1991, after he retired and moved to Chennai, a family member suggested he try creating crosswords for The Hindu, which was looking for setters. Jayaraman sent in an entry and was recruited.

Initially, Jayaraman worked entirely by hand, drawing grids using a pencil and ruler before filling in solution words using the Longman Crossword Key, a dictionary that lists words by length and letter position. Jayaraman’s wife, Vimala, told me that by the mid 1990s she began creating solution grids for him on a computer. “In at least 80 percent of the crosswords, the grids I used to fill up and my husband used to set the clues,” she said.

Jayaraman carefully checked the grids for errors, and replaced words that were obscure or had recently appeared in his crosswords; an analysis by Upadhyay of seventy-two Sankalak puzzles that appeared between the summers of 2008 and 2009 revealed that he repeated only 3 percent of his solution words, and never used the same word more than twice. “It could take a day or more for each puzzle,” Jayaraman told Upadhyay. “I do not try to finish all the clues in one go. There are always breaks when you feel that your mind does not work.”

But Jayaraman brought more to his work than just simplicity and freshness. “He was really good at anagrams, and long ones, of fifteen letters or so,” Rao said. For example, in a crossword published posthumously in March, Jayaraman’s clue for “chloramphenicol” read “Medicine for a rich moll on cheap trip.” The solution was neatly hidden as an anagram in “rich moll on cheap,” and “trip,” as an action word, alerted solvers to it. Jayaraman’s clues often drew inspiration from the fiction and humour he enjoyed reading, and from his musical interests; he was honorary editor of the Chennai-based performing arts magazine Sruthi. Jayaraman’s puzzles also had plenty of Indian flavour. In a January 2014 puzzle, for instance, his clue for “librarian” read “Sign followed by returning Keralite, one taking care of the books.” “Sign” pointed solvers to “Libra,” while “returning Keralite” was a hint to spell “Nair” backwards. On top of it all, Jayaraman was prolific: he published around 1,500 crosswords over the years, with up to six appearing every month. The Hindu still has many unpublished Sankalak crosswords (the paper did not share an exact number), and promises to keep publishing three a month for the time being.

Those who met Jayaraman remember him as a quiet and modest man. Upadhyay recalled that, in March 2013, an author writing a book about crosswords from around the world asked her to recommend prominent Indian setters. “When I told Sankalak about it he said, ‘I am the wrong person to ask. I am not a prominent setter,’” Upadhyay said. Jayaraman’s son, Jayashankar, told me he didn’t think his father ever realised how popular his crosswords were, and that he “would be squirming if he knew so many of us were talking about him right now.”