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Puzzle-wit

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on July 30, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

ILLUSTRATION: MANJULA PADMANABHAN

Every night, however late it is, I work on a puzzle called WordStorm before falling asleep. It’s like “WordWheel”, which used to appear in newspapers, except it’s electronic and I play it on my iPad.

There are no clues or prompts. Using only nine letters of the alphabet, I have to find 35 words of four letters or longer. A new puzzle appears every 24 hours. Each set of letters contains one that must be included in all of the 35 correct answers. There’s no “solution”. If I haven’t found all the words by midnight, a new challenge appears in the grid but the previous puzzle remains accessible. Incomplete puzzles remain incomplete right until all 35 positions have been filled up.

The moment that happens, there’s a cheerful DING! and the tile-rack goes inert. And that’s it! No marching bands or firework displays, no lasting fame or glittering prizes. The big question is, why do I bother? Why do I poke and prod at my tired mind, struggling to wring a word out of its hiding place? There’s no solution to that question either. The words themselves are so commonplace that finding them does not feel like an achievement. I might spend a whole morning staring into space, only to realise that the missing item is plain old “NAIVE”. Or “GENRE”. Or “INLET”.

It’s very hard to explain the pleasures of a puzzle to those who never do them. Bins, for instance. He considers my daily struggles with WordStorm’s simple little board as just another sign of brain-rot. “It’s completely useless!” he fumes, when he guesses that I am staring at the puzzle while we’re talking on WhatsApp. The reason he guesses is that I sometimes go silent in mid-sentence. “You hunt down words like a Dash-hound...” he always pronounces it like that, as if the breed were a type of hound-that-dashes “...going after a rat, dig-dig-dig, until Ahahh! Out it comes!”

He’s right: I even feel like a Dash-hound, as I dig through all the possible combinations of the nine letters on the board. Sometimes I can practically smell the word as it dangles out of reach. “Why can’t you use that mental energy for doing something USEFUL?” Bins wants to know. “Such as?” I ask, even as my mind juggles with different ways of combining “V” with “I” and “T” and “N” ... and POP! There it is, my final word for today’s puzzle: “NATIVE”. So close to “NAIVE” and yet so elusive.

As my mind mists over with the happy radiance of success, I miss Bins’s response to my question. “Sorry,” I say. “Didn’t hear you.” “Too bad!” he snarls in a huffy voice. “I can’t keep repeating myself while Madam finishes her puzzle!” “You were suggesting uses for mental energy...” I say, trying to jog his memory. “Never mind,” says Bins. “I’ve already forgotten.” “Tea?” I ask, on my side of the planet. “Yup,” says Bins, on his side.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on July 30, 2020
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