Appa's Crossword Magic

A writer learns the worth of her work through her father’s love for word puzzles

Mala Kumar Updated: Jan 27, 2023 14:16:05 IST
Appa's Crossword Magic Illustrations by Siddhant Jumde

Once in a while, I have thoughts that shake up my simple, straightforward life. Questions like, Have I missed the bus? Should I be more aggressive in my career as a writer? Make my words count for more? Or rather, should I have earned more for my work? Not possible, silly, an inner voice reminds me, You’re your father’s daughter.

Appa shared a similar feeling many years ago. “I wish I had bought property or invested in something that yielded big returns,” he said wistfully. What makes you say that?” I asked in surprise—it was uncharacteristic of him to express such regret. “Wouldn’t it have been nice for you and your brothers to inherit some sizable chunk when I’m gone?” he said with a big smile.

When Appa passed away peacefully one morning, he left behind a wealth of precious memories. Part of my priceless inheritance from him is a box of yellow pencils. Some barely used, some worn-down, but each unfailingly functional, they remind me of his love of solving crossword puzzles. Of him sitting by the window, bathed in morning light, carefully filling in their tiny boxes. The pencils were always sharp, the pens never dry, and the erasers and sharpeners always close at hand.

In his eighties, Appa would read the day’s newspaper, cover to cover, with a pleasant smile on his face. But wasn’t the news full of political mud-slinging,disasters and advertisements?

“What are you reading that’s so funny, Appa?” I would ask.

“Oh, nothing. I don’t pay much attention to the news. But reading reminds me of forgotten words that help me solve the crossword. Ah, got it! 12-D, CLASH!”

An inexpensive newspaper. A few minutes of reading with the sun streaming in through the bay windows. A spark in the mind, and bingo! You get that elusive word to complete the puzzle on the last page. Simple rewards. Appa never bragged about these triumphs, but his wide, beaming smile made it clear that all was well across the world and down his lane.

Appa’s words were ‘profitable’ to us in more ways than one. When he read the papers, our dog would sidle up to him, confident of a long hour or two of back strokes and tummy rubs. This left me free to write without a clingy pup pawing for attention. Appa would gladly put his paper down to engage with curious grandchildren, telling them stories about language, lexicon, people and places. More importantly, he would listen. A good life lesson for the little ones, as they grew appreciate that not all grown-ups are pushy or pedantic (or 'sententious', 'nit-picking', 'pedagogic'—Appa, I hope you’re proud!)

While my father wielded words for love, I did the same for a living. He understood this, and that may have been why he never asked me to suggest a word or help him with a puzzle. For him, my words were precious; each held value. In my own mind, it did not matter how much I got paid for writing gigs. I wrote because I loved word-craft and spinning stories that brought ideas to life, often for or about non-profits—that is until recently.

“You were paid peanuts!” said some of my younger, more worldly-wise friends. Unlike me, they studied freelance markets, found the best places to publish their work and the best editors to work with. I was as astonished by their revelations as with their magnanimity in sharing the fruits of their labour with other writers.

But, call it inertia, or principle, I did not heed their advice. But when an editor surprised me with a lower rate of pay for a piece they chose to publish online rather than in print, as was originally proposed, I was shocked … and hurt! But like my father, I saw the bright side—so many people read the piece and loved it, sharing joyful emoticons and praise on social media. It did wonders for my confidence. Maybe I was shortchanged, but I felt rewarded too.

Many decades ago, before the advent of smartphones, I remember Appa reading aloud to me from a magazine, or challenging me to a Reader’s Digest’s Word Power quiz. I remember the way his face would light up as he discovered a new turn of a phrase, or at the sound of a word. If my attention waned, he would say, “Feeling drowsy? Never mind, I’ll keep reading. Some of the words may stay in your mind. Okay?

By introducing me to the power of words, Appa guided my life’s calling, a purpose I never questioned or bothered to navigate cleverly—it was only our shared passion that mattered. But while I was content for many years, a certain anxiety would at times creep in. Was it because everyone around me seemed to be sharing greater triumphs and earnings than mine? Would ambition or competition cheapen the dignity of my work?

I know what my father’s solution would have been. “Why not both? Of course, money isn’t everything, but isn’t it good to have enough to help yourself and those close to you? For your talents and efforts to be valued as it should?”

image-67-2_070622123435.jpgThe author, now a published novelist. Photo Courtesy: Mala Kumar

Appa lived his life helping people quietly, never forgetting the people who had lent him a hand. He believed that more wealth did not mean greater happiness, but also that no effort should be undervalued. Today, when doubts cloud my mind, I think of Appa’s sharpened pencil: it’s purpose may have been to solve a crossword, but it was also there for anyone who desperately needed it to, say, jot down a life-changing number.

You see, a crossword is complete—and gives one joy—with only so many words, and only when each word rests on elements from the others. So couldn’t my words hold a duality that completes my purpose too? And so, now I take up assignments, some that pay well, some that don’t, but together, and most importantly, they fill me with joy.




Do You Like This Story?
Other Stories