Super Subcultures

This Boy From Mumbai Became the World’s Unlikeliest Crossword King

As a teenager, Mangesh Ghogre was obsessed with decoding puzzles filled with foreign references. Now he’s the only non-American to ever create them for The New York Times.

This Boy From Mumbai Became the World’s Unlikeliest Crossword King

In a brightly lit room on the ground floor of the United States Consulate General building in Mumbai, India, Mangesh Ghogre dishes out a litany of fun facts to an enrapt audience of about 20:

The most common size for an American crossword is 15 by 15 squares… The maximum number of black squares you can have is 43… The pattern of black and white squares must be symmetrical.

It’s a little after two p.m. on a Monday and Ghogre, 38, is leading a two-hour crossword workshop. He begins with the history and basics of the puzzle, then turns to the afternoon’s main agenda: What does it take to construct an American crossword? It’s something Ghogre is uniquely positioned to do. He is the only person who was born and raised outside North America, and who has never lived there, to create a crossword puzzle for The New York Times.

As Ghogre runs through his 53-slide presentation, he lays out the basic rules – you can’t use two-letter words and you can’t repeat words – then dives into the details, like how to create a theme. (American crosswords are often constructed around a central conceit scattered through several clues in the puzzle.) Attendees chime in with questions: Can themed clues appear either vertically or horizontally? (Yes, they can.) Do you plan the filled-in words first or the theme? (The theme.) How long does it take to make one? (Maybe six months.)

Ghogre brings up a slide with the word “cruciverbalism” – the creating of crosswords. “Cruciverbalists,” he smiles and turns to the audience: “idiots like me.”

Ghogre happens to be a very accomplished member of this inexorably geeky tribe. He has published crosswords 11 times in various U.S. publications, including The New York Times, which receives 75 to 100 submissions per week. This year was his fifth time serving as a judge at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which draws 600-plus seasoned solvers.

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“I would say he is very rare,” Will Shortz, the legendary crossword editor at The New York Times and director of the annual crossword tournament, wrote in an email. Shortz confirmed that, with the exception of American-born expats, and puzzlers who were born elsewhere but raised in the U.S. or Canada, no other non-North American has ever had a puzzle published in the Times.

“It is difficult for a non-American to make – or even solve – American crosswords, because they’re so full of American culture,” Shortz says. “You would have to understand American life and society and English as Americans speak it in order to master our puzzles.”

Ghogre’s day job doesn’t even have much to do with his unusual hobby: he’s an investment banker. “I’m not an English literature graduate. At least they study Shakespeare,” he chuckles. “I’ve spent more time with numbers than letters. There was no reason for me to be here.”

Ghogre grew up outside Mumbai, went to a small school and had no particular interest in words. His parents didn’t speak English, and he studied science in high school, eventually joining a well-respected engineering college in central Mumbai.

Entering the Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute in 1997, he quickly realized the defining temper of the place. The college was awash with ambitious students preparing for the GRE and GMAT so they could study in the U.S. “Everyone is walking around with a Barron’s word list,” he says, referring to the famous study material.

He originally took up the crossword while studying for the GMAT. For a while, he and a few other young men would huddle at breakfast, heads crowded over a shared newspaper trying to solve the Times of India puzzle. Reprinted from The Los Angeles Times, the black and white grids were a maze of foreign concepts and words. Within a month the morning group thinned, eventually leaving Ghogre to tackle the puzzle on his own.

His early attempts were hopeless. In the first six months the best he could do was filling in the S’s, divining from a clue that there was a plural involved but failing to solve it fully. Then he slowly managed to fill in simple answers like capitals and currencies.

Still, every puzzle was a haven of unheard-of things. Who was Ares? Where on earth was Lake Eyre? What was this strange creature called the coati? Beyond those obscure, vowel-heavy words that are well known to devoted American puzzle-solvers, Ghogre waded through a sea of U.S. politics, geography, pop culture, biblical references and much more.

Mastering a puzzle from another country is more than just learning the language; the knowledge banks from which the puzzle-makers draw is a vast and varied shared vocabulary, inherently recognizable to a North American audience, but incomprehensible to others. Simple phrases like “doing time” for going to jail and “greenback” for a dollar, were mystifying. For Ghogre, puzzle solving was a crash course in an alien argot.

But instead of losing interest, he became increasingly determined to master it. With a sharpened pencil, he’d be at it even during class, often getting thrown out for not paying attention. Each day he would approach the puzzle with a fresh zeal, hauling around a heavy dictionary, composing lists of words, memorizing answers and building up his vocabulary. It was a year and a half before he finished his first crossword unassisted.

A slide towards the end of his presentation features a picture of dense scribbled notes in black and blue ink, every empty space of the paper crammed with some or other strand of fresh knowledge. One part has a section on planets; another on animals; a third on key biblical characters and their relationships; a fourth on the major Greek deities. As he explains the intricacies of clues to his audience, he adopts an American accent to utter phrases like whaddya want and I ain’t seen it with the practiced air of someone who knows these words but has never had cause to use them.

Ghogre never ended up needing his GMAT score. After completing a management degree in 2004 in Mumbai, he started working at a bank. He continued solving puzzles, and began earnest efforts at constructing his own in 2009. The initial volley of rejections stung. Then, his first puzzle was published in The Los Angeles Times on March 9, 2010.

“Few constructors from outside the U.S. have shown interest in, much less mastered, the art form of American-style crosswords,” Deb Amlen, head writer and editor of The New York Times’s Wordplay column, wrote in an email. “Mangesh’s crosswords show that he has an admirable grasp not only of American English colloquialisms, but the art of setting the crossword as well.”

Ghogre never even visited the U.S. until he was invited to be a judge at the annual crossword tournament in 2012. Setting foot on American soil felt a little like stepping into a parallel universe. A world he had seen telescoped through a black and white chunk of puzzle now reared up before his eyes in all its Technicolor three-dimensionality. Driving down the wide highways he finally spotted the “semi” or “18-wheeler” he’d heard so much about. At lunch, he stared down a slab of crispy pink meat that he’d known only as a “BLT ingredient.”

“In the ’90s there was no bacon in India,” Ghogre says, “unless you went to a five-star hotel” – something he never did.

For every published crossword, there are usually dozens of rejections, and it can be an introverted, often isolating hobby, “like a self-inflicted pain,” as Ghogre puts it. There are no discernible rewards, aside from engaging with another culture and learning to think creatively. “It’s like classical dance,” he says. “Very few do it, and it takes years” to master.

One of Ghogre’s greatest triumphs came when an Independence Day-themed crossword he co-created with Brendan Emmett Quigley, an American puzzler, was published in The New York Times on the Fourth of July last year. The pair met at the crossword tournament, where they were both judges, and Ghogre proposed a collaboration. Trading grids and clues back and forth over Whatsapp, they finalized the puzzle and submitted it, then waited two years until it was published.

While there are not likely many Indians eager to follow in his footsteps, the workshop Ghogre hosted at the American consulate this spring drew a small gathering of men (and a few women), interested in learning about the hidden beauties and symmetries of the American crossword. In the future Ghogre hopes to do more to popularize puzzles in India. Last year a selection of his crosswords was displayed at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, one of the city’s major annual cultural events. He plans to design a special puzzle themed around Indo-U.S. relations, hopefully to coincide with a presidential visit, and he even has aspirations to cross over into fashion with a line of crossword-inspired apparel.

Between work and family commitments, Ghogre now has less time to do the daily crossword, but he closely follows conversations about the latest puzzles, themes and solutions on online message boards. Newspapers may be struggling with print subscriptions and sales, but puzzle fanatics have found plenty of virtual spaces for debate, dissection and discussion.

“There is a human tendency to solve puzzles,” says Ghogre. “If you see something is incomplete you want to fill it up.”