Monthly Archives: February 2010

Theyil kadais (Part One): Safari suits and such

There’s this little tailor shop in Adyar I pass on my way home from work everyday. It’s very poshly named Executive Men’s Tailor, and the tagline under it reads ‘Specialist in Safari and Suits’.

Now, it’s true that enterprising entrepreneurs in the the city often provide more than one service from little more than a potti kadai. Your neighbourhood Veena Medicals might both sell Cool Drinks from dusty old glass bottles with the requisite brightly coloured straws (you don’t see those venerable bottles as often any more. I miss them. Stupid new-fangled cans and plastic disposables) and be able to procure for you any medication you need, prescriptions be damned (‘I’ll have one packet Gems and one strip of Erithromycin, please’). Even so, a little theyil kadai claiming to be an expert in both organising safaris and stitching suits is something quite out of the ordinary, you’d agree (‘I’ll book you and your family on a Kenyan safari and throw in three lion-watching suits as part of the package’). Impressive.

Of course, it’s a tad more likely that the man is actually claiming to be a specialist in safari suits as well as other, lesser suits. Disappointing, yes, but that got me thinking about that slowly vanishing sartorial staple of the 70s and 80s in India — the safari suit. There was a time when the safari suit was an absolute must-have for the middle-class man of substance — the government official, the businessman, the school principal. Certainly they were a staple of our movie wardrobes. Every man-about-town owned one — I’m certain there’s a yellowing picture of my dad as a dapper 20-something MBA grad wearing one somewhere in the Family Chest of Bad Fashion Decisions (alongside the one of the tiger-print shirts). Every up-and-comer aspired to one.

Usually all in grey (various shades thereof) or in that awful shade of dark brown that was so popular for bell-bottoms, it was the all-body precursor of the cargo shorts (and you kids thought you were the first to come up with the idea that having a gazillion meaningless pockets was somehow cool). It also always had to be worn a couple of sizes too small — if your paunch wasn’t pressing comfortably against the middle button pre-lunch and actively struggling to break free post-lunch, you weren’t wearing it right (in fact, it is said that many a slim and willowy gentleman felt unworthy of the safari suit given his woefully inadequate mid-section. That resulted in the first and only instance in recorded history of the production of faux-paunches by a company in Bombay. They shut down following a lengthy legal battle with Bappi da who claimed the paunches were modeled on his). And finally, the safari suit was meant for longevity — the older and, of course, tighter your safari suit was, the greater its street cred in the halls of the government office you worked in.

Over the years, however, the star of the safari suit has waned. It’s become something of a joke amongst the chic set — it’s uncool, it’s only for the hopelessly fashion-challenged, they cry. But still the safari suit lingers, and not only in photo albums (right beside the bouffants and the long sideburns). In true old-school Indian style (where you never give up on anything, however patently it’s past its sell-by date, e.g. Lata Mangeshkar), a stubborn set of stuck-in-the-70s gentlemen hold on to their safari suits, whipping it out of the mothballs for that fancy family do or that important meeting. And presumably, if and when these valiant suits do give way, the gentlemen drop by to see Executive Men’s Tailor, Specialist in Safari and Suits. Because in other parts of the world, the safari suit may have become an almost-forgotten fad to be fondly remembered and even celebrated; in India, where the past and the present co-exist in (fairly) peaceful togetherness, it lives on proudly, as do the theyil kadais that specialise in them.

(PS: Would love to know the origins of the safari suit — any ideas? Does it have anything whatsoever to do with actual safaris? Did it evolve from the Shikari Shambu suits colonial-types wore while hunting in barbarian lands?)



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Book Recs: Cyrus Broacha’s ‘Karl, Aaj Aur Kal’

I picked the neon-green-and-red book a couple of weeks ago at Landmark before I’d heard or read anything about it. Its colouring and comic book-type cover caught my eye at first, but I ended up buying it for a very simple reason — I love good ol’ Cyrus and his oddball sense of humour. Always have.  (In the interest of full disclosure, it also didn’t hurt that the book cost about what you’d pay for coffee and a muffin (yum) at Barista. Still more expensive than Chetan Bhagat, of course, but then again, no painfully obvious typos and glaring grammatical boo-boos either).

Having finished the book, I can tell you that my reasoning was sound i.e.  if you’re a fan of the Cyrus Broacha brand of free-wheeling goofiness, you’ll enjoy ‘Karl, aaj aur kal’. This isn’t really a work of fiction in the traditional sense. I mean, there is a loose narrative structure about two friends Karl and Kunal (quite obviously based on Kunal Vijayakar) and how they met at school in Mumbai and went to college together, and so on. But if you’re looking for story, plot, etc., this isn’t the book for you. This is, quite simply, like having Cyrus stand before you and hold forth for a few hours on Parsi families and opera-loving fathers, St. Xavier’s College and the Mumbai theatre scene, Bollywood, politics and marriage. You can literally hear him stop to take a breath between the lines (he even informs you occasionally that he’s bored and moving on to something new).

Which means, like any other Cyrus monologue, you have absolutely brilliant moments that make you burst out laughing, like I did while reading it in the middle of a crowded coffee shop recently, and then there are the  over-the-top jokes that make you go ‘meh’ or the excessively rambly bits that you can thankfully skim over in book form. What makes it worth a read overall is that Cyrus’ voice comes across so clearly at all times — down-to-earth, authentic and real. No pretentiousness, no play-acting. There are a lot of Indian writers out there trying to be like someone else in their humour writing — Helen Fielding or God forbid, P.G. Wodehouse, and in the midst of it all Cyrus and ‘Karl, aaj aur kal’ is a breath of fresh air.

The best best bits of the book come towards the halfway point, when Karl and Kunal go to St. Xavier’s, join Pearl Padamsee’s theatre troupe and then go to NYU for a few weeks to study method acting (your impression of method acting as something serious and pseudo will forever be changed, I assure you). These portions work so well because there is a strong autobiographical element to them; you can hear Cyrus’ own experiences and involvement shine through in the midst of all the nuttiness . That makes them the most easy to relate to bits and therefore the funniest. The early part about their school days tends to sound a tad generic (porn and first kisses and such) though there are some priceless moments — like how the entire class goes around talking in fake Chinese accents after watching a Hong Kong flick in Karate class. The latter half, which can be loosely described as the Bollywood and the politics bit, gets increasingly silly and over-the-top (Karl becomes part of the ‘Pyjama Party’ and they were purple pyjamas with white nadas that indicate their strength and integrity or something) until it loses touch with reality altogether. The ending is annoyingly abrupt, like his publisher said, ‘bas, your time’s up’ and he stopped talking/writing (but the epilogue makes up for it somewhat.)

If you love Cyrus and you’re up for a good laugh, this is Rs. 195/- well spent. (Random House, Pg. 230)

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How to… Be a Pseudo Intellectual

1. It’s impossible to be a pseudo intellectual without this important ingredient – hot air. See when it comes to being pseudo, it’s not what you actually do (which is fairly negligible); it’s about what you say and how you say it. Being opinionated is a must, as is holding forth with authority on the latest award-winning smart-person type book / movie (actual reading/watching is optional). But at all times remember to be properly dismissive of popular culture (unless you’re using words such as ‘postmodern’ and ‘pastiche’ while discussing it).

2. Which brings us to the second-most essential ingredient – words. We’re not talking about just any words; these words must imbue your pontificating with precisely the right degree of pomposity (see what I did there?) without actually saying anything that can be pinned on you later. When in doubt, pepper your speech with big words that sound vaguely French or Italian. Skilful insertion of references to Foucault or Derrida never hurt either. And always keep up with the pseudo word-fads – for instance, ‘paradigm’ is so 1998.

3. It isn’t just enough to talk right and use the right words – it’s also important to be seen talking at the right places. It’s absolutely essential for the serious pseudo intellectual to be at any cultural event that includes the word ‘avant-garde’ or barring that, ‘experimental’, in its title (art and theatre have particularly high pseudo-quotient). Here’s your rule of thumb – if you can’t really understand it, it’s perfect for you to hold forth on at the next party.

4. Ah parties, swanky, exclusive parties. This is the pseudo intellectual’s natural habitat. Members of the tribe can be observed clustered in groups trying to out-pseudo each other, generally over a glass of wine and tiny hors d’oeuvres with sufficiently obscure names and origins. Pay careful attention to your attire – smart-girl/boy glasses are an immeasurable asset to the newbie pseudo, as are artsy/smart-people clothes such as raw-silk kurtas or tweed jackets.

5. Finally, the secret ingredient that goes into the making of a bonafide pseudo intellectual is boredom. Always remember, displaying bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm over anything is a big no-no. Once that studied veneer of world-weariness and been-there done-that ennui is in place, you, my friend, have arrived.


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Article: Look who’s on the prowl

Phishers, scammers and spammers… cyber criminals are out to target people on social-networking sites. DIVYA KUMAR writes

Building a farm or joining the Mafia Wars on Facebook is just as much a part of your daily routine as checking your work email. Crappy movies, boring parties and bad break-ups are all fodder alike for acerbic Tweets. Pictures taken on your cellphone make it on your Orkut profile page at the speed of light, and padding your friends list is your favourite pastime.

Our lives today are increasingly submerged in social-networking websites, like millions others worldwide. In the last year, the number of Indian visitors to sites such as Facebook, Orkut, MySpace and Twitter increased by 51 per cent to 19 million (according to comScore’s 2009 report). And where people are, that’s where the phishers, scammers and spammers go.

“Social-networking sites have become one of the most popular targets for cyber criminals,” says David Freer, Vice President Consumer Business, Asia Pacific and Japan, of Symantec, calling 2009 the year of attacks against social-networking sites and their users. “These sites have a huge number of users (Facebook alone has 350 million), and cyber criminals have a fairly simple modus operandi – go where the people are.”

Amit Agarwal, one of India’s top tech bloggers and columnist agrees. “The threat is very real,” he says. “Often you read about these things but you don’t know the people affected, but this is actually happening, everyday.”

For instance, he describes a recent attack on Twitter, due to which passwords had to be reset on a few thousand accounts. “The attack took advantage of people’s innate laziness,” says the blogger. “Many of us use the same credentials – username and password – on multiple websites, which means that the guys at some questionable site you visited, let’s call it, can now log on to your other accounts, such as Twitter.”

Once they have access to your account by any means, your entire contact list becomes vulnerable to spam, phishing or ‘drive-by download’ attacks through links or notifications that are sent out. “By their very nature, social networking sites are about a group of people who trust each other,” explains Freer. “If you get a request to look at photos on Facebook or click on shortened URL on Twitter from a friend, you tend to trust it automatically.”

Those links could take you to imposter sites that ask you to enter your credentials again (standard phishing), or more sneakily, simply take you to a site that silently download malware onto your system, i.e., the ‘drive-by download’. “Last year, this was the fastest growing form of attack – there were18 million drive-by download attacks in all of 2008; in 2009, we hit that number just between August and October,” says Freer.

The buzzword amongst experts for these attacks is ‘social engineering’ – using people’s behaviour patterns to target them for attacks. “The actual attacks are the same as what we’ve seen earlier, via email, etc., but the false sense of trust and security existing in social networks makes it easier for criminals to deceive,” says Na. Vijayashankar a.k.a. Naavi, cyber law and techno-legal consultant.

Third-party applications on websites such as Facebook – those fun games and other time-pass applications you add on – are also frequent offenders, exposing your system to malware embedded in the application itself or in the ad on the side of its webpage. “The bad applications are usually banned after a few reports from users, but on day one of the attack, no one will know. There are 500,000 applications on Facebook, for example; it’s just impossible for them to keep track of them all,” says Amit.

“A lot of these game apps involve money transactions, so they get your credit card details, and scams do happen,” says Tarun Shan, a 22-year-old student of Hindustan Engineering College, and an online entrepreneur. “People think these sites are so cool and just get so addicted, but they need to be careful.”

Common sense, it would appear, is the only real defence against these attacks (and an up-to-date anti-virus software on your system, of course). For instance, research shows that an alarming number of users on social-networking sites add people they don’t really know as friends. “Don’t get into a mad race to add more friends just for the sake of it,” says Naavi. “Use some sort of screening process when you get requests from people you don’t know.”

Be cautious about opening any weird links from people already on your friends list. “If you’re getting unusual messages from a friend, send them a note asking them about it,” says Freer. “And always be wary of short URLS which can mask malicious sites.”

And don’t be lazy – educate yourself. “Most of these websites are doing all they can to protect you, but you have to do your bit as well,” says Amit.

Top tips

1. Be wary of adding strangers to your friends list
2. Be careful while clicking on shortened URLs
3. Use strong passwords. Create different passwords for different accounts
4. Be cautious while using third-party applications and sharing private data with them
5. If you’re getting unusual messages from a friend, send her a note about them


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To all the Divya Ks out there

Finally making my first post, nearly a year after creating the blog. I’d actually forgotten I’d created it at all and only remembered when wordpress told me my email id had already been used when I tried to register. This either meant that I’d already created a blog on wordpress or that there was some other blogging-inclined Divya K out there with the same email id, which is entirely possible considering the ridiculous frequency with which people mistakenly email me stuff meant for other Divya Ks (oh how many of them there are). HDFC persists in sending me poor Divya Vasudevan K’s bank statements every month, and superciliously informed me that I was imagining things when I tried to tell them about it. I personally make it a point to inform all the Divya Kesavans and Divya Kapoors who email themselves [me] their resumes, air ticket confirmations, office memos, etc. that I’m not them. Always feel very virtuous after I do it too. My little digital act of kindness for the day.

But I digress.

The point is, while it is possible that I’ve actually been somehow sharing my email id with a number of other Divya Ks (timeshare email ids?) because it’s just such a common combination of name and initial that the email provider couldn’t allot it to only one woman (or man, actually, but that’s a rant for another day), it isn’t probable. (I wonder about it on occasion, but since my email inbox has remained fairly unmolested in the four years that I’ve used it, I’ve decided it’s just me being paranoid). So that meant that I had in fact meandered over to wordpress while seized by one of my intermittent ‘I’m-going-to-become-a-blogger!!!’ urges and actually created one. And then *boing* a very, very faint bulbu went off somewhere in my antihistamine-fogged brain (it’s been a bad allergy winter. Any errors on this blog are attributable to Desloratadine until further notice) and I remembered vaguely having created one last March. See, one of my colleagues had very sweetly gifted another colleague a blog (with an apt domain name purchased for a year) for her birthday and that had sparked off one of the intermittent urges, etc.

So. (I’m certain no one is still reading at this point, but I’m going to persevere cos it’s my blog and I’ll ramble if I want to). Here I am, in February of the next year and I’m finally updating. (Please, don’t everybody break into applause at once). This update almost didn’t happen either. I started this morning in a fit of productive cheerfulness (it happens to me rarely, very rarely) and gave it up because I couldn’t think of anything to say. It started feeling like an article I didn’t have a lead sentence for and I gave it up for later. Then I remembered that this is for fun and it’s not in fact an article that needs to live up to any quality standard and all and I just let myself go once I got home at night (I’m sure you’re real glad I did, persevering reader who’s gotten this far.)

Anyhoo. This blog will be updated in future with bits and pieces from articles or additional information on ppl I meet/write about, book/movie recs, random observations about Chennai, etc. in the future. Or not. It depends on whether I actually remember that it exists at all in the future.

ETA: Look ma, no word count limit!! 😀

ETA: Must. stop. obsessively. editing. and. re-editing.


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Interview with… Madhav Chari

Pianist Madhav Chari talks about the spirit of jazz, linking his music to Indian philosophy and his experiential workshops. DIVYA KUMAR listens in


If you go to meet jazz pianist Madhav Chari expecting to discuss just jazz or even just music, think again. With mind-whirling rapidity the conversation flows between cognitive science and colonialism, mathematics and anthropology, Indian philosophy and American academia, not to mention martial arts, dance and the Bhakti movement…

At one point, I have to ask him to stop briefly, so I can look back to the original list of questions I’d studiously prepared before the interview. But they seem rather limited — and limiting — now, so I decide to let the conversation take its course, just interjecting the odd query now and again.

“What we’re doing right now is jazz music,” says Madhav, halfway through, during an impassioned (there isn’t any other kind with Madhav) discussion on how jazz is freedom, but with form. “This conversation is not scripted. It’s loosely improvised but you’re still providing direction — that’s jazz music.”

And with that neat journalistic analogy for jazz, the free-flowing chat suddenly makes sense. After all, the essence of any conversation with Madhav Chari is jazz, the music form that grabbed him when he was a six-year-old in Kolkata and hasn’t let go since.

“What about it grabbed me I don’t know,” he muses. Maybe it was his father’s knowledge of jazz from the 1940s, when he saw the big bands of the era play while at The Lawrence School, Lovedale. Or, perhaps the family friend whom he used to watch improvising on the piano. “There was just an emotional connect. It’s like asking why the chocolate cake appealed to you… it’s hard to answer.”

He dismisses his training in Western classical piano as mere calisthenics. “Loosely speaking, yes, I’m trained in Western classical, in the sense that I did the gamut of exams, but it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s because we learn the music in a context where it wasn’t born, where that form of music isn’t a vibrant, living force, unlike in London, Moscow or Paris.”

This idea of absorbing music as a ‘living force’, of experiencing its spirit, is of intense importance to Madhav. That’s why he cherishes the time he spent in the U.S. at places such as New York or Chicago, where jazz still lives. There was the time, for instance, that he got to play with a local sax legend in Chicago while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC).

“The great pianist Tommy Flanagan, who had recorded with John Coltrane, was sitting in the audience… I saw him and my heart just skipped a beat,” he laughs. “But the music took me over and I forgot my stage fright, and in the end, he congratulated me and gave me his number in New York. These experiences were very important in my search as a jazz musician.”

After his studies, Madhav spent some time as part of the jazz scene in New York and a brief eight months in Toronto before returning to India in 2003 and settling in Chennai, where his parents live. These past seven years have been a period of a spiritual awakening for the pianist, and Indian philosophy has now become an integral part of his musical journey.

“I want to be a jazz musician who thoroughly understands the tradition of the music, but who’s also alive to the possibilities of his own consciousness and has linked himself with the mystical traditions of India,” he says, adding with a smile, “But I don’t play Hindustani music… I’ll be playing the blues.”

He’s also developed some very strong opinions (to put it mildly) on the Indian music scene — whether it’s local jazz or fusion. “I will go on record saying that in the last 40 years, not one musician in Mumbai — the leading jazz centre in India — has tapped the spirit of jazz,” he says emphatically. “They’ve tapped the form, but not the spirit. And that’s why I have a problem with fusion as well, because so much of it is technical and theoretical, with very little experiential insight.”

His own corporate workshops, which he now conducts with martial arts expert George Kurian, focus entirely on just that — the experiential. “We make people do music and martial arts exercises, and allow the gateways of the mind to open up,” Madhav says. “There’s hardly any talking, because I believe that in the modern Indian urban consciousness, language is a tremendous block to understanding. English has blocked our access to our own experiences — it’s a facet of colonialism.”

These beliefs are part of the reason why Madhav has connected with Chennai the way he has since 2003. “It’s not about it being conservative or liberal; it’s about it being open to experiences while being rooted in tradition,” he says of the city. “I’m not impressed by people telling me Bangalore is more hip or modern; modernity is actually old, based on where I want to go in a cosmic sense.”


He enjoys the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara, chair of the Comparative Science of Cultures Centre at Ghent University in Belgium, on Hindu philosophy and religion.

He loves the music of American jazz pianist ‘Bud’ Powell. Madhav’s most recent album ‘Parisian Thoroughfares’ is titled after a Powell composition.

He likes Mathematics, in which he has a Masters degree from Dartmouth University


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Article: Clued In

The Hindu crossword has become more than a collection of clues and grids. DIVYA KUMAR says it has spawned an active online community which discusses every aspect of it


There’s something about The Hindu crossword. The neat, unassuming grey-and-white grid tucked away in a corner of the daily paper seems to inspire a particularly passionate brand of devotion, one that cuts across age, gender and geographical barriers, affecting 80-something scientists and 20-something software engineers, former journalists and retired army officers, Chennai-ites and Californians alike.

This isn’t your garden-variety enthusiasm. We’re talking about the kind that spawns multiple blogs and highly active groups on social networking sites, generates intense scrutiny and in-depth analysis of every clue and composer, and even a statistical study to be published in an international linguistics journal soon.

Colonel Deepak Gopinath (retired), for instance, does The Hindu crossword (let’s call it THC as the online enthusiasts do from here on) “every morning without fail.” And by 8.30 a.m., the solutions are up on his blog The Hindu Crossword Corner. Without fail. “I schedule it for 8.30 a.m. though I’m usually done much earlier,” says the Bangalore-based gentleman who begins every morning at 6.45 a.m., as soon as the paper arrives. He adds in his precise way: “I don’t put it up sooner to give others a chance to exercise their brain cells.”

For NRI fans such as California-based T.S. Ganesh, the solving actually starts sooner. “We get a time advantage since the crossword gets uploaded online at around 2 a.m. IST when the on-paper solvers back in India are fast asleep,” says the 27-year-old computer engineer, who began the popular THC-solving Orkut group as a masters student back in 2004. “The first post on our Orkut forum appears within an hour or so of THC’s appearance online.”

The Orkut forum today has over 1000 members from the U.K., the U.S., Germany, Hong Kong, and, of course, India, and boasts of never having left a single crossword unsolved since the day it began. An added attraction is that three of the five THC ‘composers’ (those who create the puzzles everyday) drop by regularly, such as Chennai-based C.G. Rishikesh who’s a mentor for the group.

“I post extensively, explaining or commenting on clues, on Orkut and several other websites,” says Rishikesh, a former journalist, who’s composed over 600 puzzles for The Hindu. “There’s a tremendous interest in THC, and it has grown thanks to the Internet. Now, anyone who doesn’t know how to decipher a clue can ask and get explanations online.”

Spawning discussions

But it isn’t only about solving the day’s puzzle. For instance, regulars on Col. Gopinath’s blog often stay on for in-depth discussions on a particular clue or word. (The discussions on these websites can get pretty intense, and they’re not always complimentary to the composers either). Friendships end up being formed off-line — Rishikesh recently hung out with a group of die-hard solvers who came to visit him in Chennai. And some solvers branch off into deeper analysis on crosswords in general, as with Shuchismita Upadhyay, owner of the blog Crosswords Unclued that features articles on solving for beginners, polls on different composers and graphs visually analysing different types of clues.

“I found that Orkut had mostly posts on the solutions but nothing much that went in-depth and analysed cryptic puzzles, their clues, etc.,” says the Bangalore-based software engineer from Delhi who’s been solving THC for nearly 15 years.

One Chennai-based scientist has taken this love of analysing crosswords to a whole new level — he’s done a statistical analysis of puzzles published over10 years (both THC and the Times of India crossword) and written a paper that has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, a major European journal.

“My paper is unusual in that it studies the occurrence of errors in crossword-solving,” says S. Naranan, a retired experimental physicist from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research who has also published papers on statistical linguistics, evolutionary genetics and cryptography. “I’ve been solving crosswords since 1975 (THC since 1992 when I moved back to Chennai), and I’ve tabulated my errors for every single puzzle. Over the years, a pattern evolved.”

That pattern, he was fascinated to find, fits the negative binomial distribution pretty perfectly. For the non-math savvy among us, that’s the same distribution curve the car insurance industry uses to predict the likelihood of accidents, and marketing whiz-kids use to predict the sale of branded products. Meaning, give Naranan enough data (puzzles you’ve solved in the past), and he can predict how many errors on average you’re likely to make in the future. Cool, huh?

So just what is it about THC that inspires this sort of dedication? Some point to its unique desi roots and style. “ The Hindu was the first English newspaper in India to introduce an original crossword composed by an Indian way back in 1971,” says Rishikesh. Shuchismita agrees, saying the “Indian context” of a lot of the clues gives a sense of familiarity that’s missing in the British or American crosswords.

For NRIs such as Ganesh, there is a certain “sentimental attachment” to the crossword they grew up doing in India. (Gita Iyer, another U.S.-based fan, describes how her tech-savvy, crossword-crazy family and friends have developed Facebook and iPhone applications for THC to keep solving it, despite having drifted apart geographically).

Whatever the reason, one thing is clear. For an increasingly global community, The Hindu crossword is a whole lot more than just a collection of grids and clues.


Col. Gopinath’s blog:

Shuchismita’s blog:

Orkut community:

THC @ The Hub:

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