Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on July 30, 2020


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

Published on July 30, 2020

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