What would the shape of our chairs be if our knees bent the other way?
MS never let on. As with all his puzzles, he left it to his readers, but this was one that none of them could crack. Has the secret now died with MS? MS was Mukul Sharma, columnist who engaged and entertained a generation of readers. MS was Mindsport, his column, which was the only reason many people, including myself, bought The Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1980s-90s. Countless readers would write back with solutions, inanities and insults, addressing their letters to “Dear MS”. Dear MS died last week.
Mindsport was by no means his only identity. MS edited Science Today magazine, drew pocket cartoons with Pritish Nandy for The Telegraph, wrote science fiction and poetry, acted alongside Rakhee Gulzar in Paroma (1985), and was once married to its director, Aparna Sen (Konkona Sen Sharma is their daughter). Friends like Nandy will remember him for his sharp mind and the wonderful person he was: “There are some people who are remembered for just being there. Mukul will be one of them.”
Fans like us will remember MS for Mindsport, his biggest legacy. It was Nandy’s idea, after he had taken over as IWI editor. It worked like most other puzzle columns: The columnist presents a problem based on mathematics, logic or wordplay, then readers try to solve it, and some of their letters get published in the next column. Lewis Carroll pioneered the idea in The Monthly Packet magazine in 1880-85. Martin Gardner wrote a mathematical games column in The Scientific American over 1957-80. MS continued the art and enriched it.
“Breakdancing the English language” was how he once described his writing. I wish I had saved clippings of Mindsport, written in the days when printed articles did not go online. Fortunately, I do have MS’s compilation, The Worst of Mindsport. After a loving introduction by Nandy, MS steps in with these first words: “I’m not responsible for the bunch of lies in the Intro you just read… A former editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India whose first name begins with a P and ends with an H, with five loopholes in between, is the guy you’re looking for.”
His puzzles were as varied as they come: Why the same number of mangoes sold at the same prices (apparently) fetch different total returns when they are bunched in two different ways. If two sides of a triangle are of equal length, prove that the angles opposite them are equal — without any additional construction. Or, fill up the blanks in a set of limericks written by MS himself, including one where the missing words are symbols for chemical elements.
After a decade in IWI, Mindsport continued in other publications, with the last column published in January this year. The prose in his later works was tamer, the style less carefree, but it is no mean achievement still — given that he endured in times when a Google search can promptly throw up the solution to any puzzle that is not original. This, I can say from experience: I have written a puzzles column of my own in five successive newspapers — over 25 years, on and off — and have had to work hard in later years to create new puzzles or package existing ones in ways that could withstand Google search. It was under the influence of Mindsport that I began, in 1993. Is the art dying, now? Not at all, Nandy assures me when I ask him; it’s how you package the puzzle that counts.
But, what would the shape of our chairs be if our knees bent the other way? Is that dead, the mystery unsolved? There may be hope there, too, as I find from rereading MS’s book. He has just offered a solution to an air-conditioning problem inside an office, and describes how much it impressed his listeners. “Naturally, confronted by such awesome genius, some of them swooned, some opted for psychoanalysis and a few, I am told, started believing in life after death.”
Touch wood, Dear MS.
— This article first appeared in the March 7, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Dear MS’