Meet India’s competitive women cubers; a minority in a male-dominated sport

On Table three, Riddhi Shukla spends eight seconds examining the Rubik’s cube in front of her. The official marks time. Both she and her opponent swiftly move to rotate chunks of colour through the cube’s axis. Twenty-six seconds later, she is done. It’s one of many rounds at a competitive cubing championship being held in Mumbai, and Riddhi, 27, is among a handful of women who play the largely male-dominated sport.

In her estimation, women comprise no more than two percent of the active Indian “cubing” scene. “The general misconception is that women aren’t good at maths and logical things,” she speculates. “People think [cubing] is related to maths and that boys are better in maths than girls and that’s why they can do it.”

A cube with little squares of colour, the goal is simple: align all the same colours on one side until every face is of a single colour as quickly as possible. Riddhi, a software engineer, began solving it six years ago, and the first time she cracked it was exhilarating, prompting her to begin competing in 2015. “There are people like me who [if they] see [a cube] in an unsolved condition, can’t leave it in an unsolved state. I want to fix it,” she says. “So that’s the first adrenaline rush you get.”

Red Bull Rubik's Cube World Championship - National Finals - Riddhi Vs Priyadarshini

Red Bull Rubik's Cube World Championship - National Finals - Riddhi Vs Priyadarshini


Behind the velvet rope set to mark competitors off from spectators, her sister Kosha is filming the match-up. Also a recent recruit to the fast and frenzied world of cubing, Kosha, 25, has still to achieve a personal best below a minute in the speedcubing format, but she’s working on it. Among the dozens of competitors, the Shukla sisters and a few others are a novelty in the testosterone-heavy room.

In the co-working space in Bandra, the low hum of clicking provides a steady soundtrack to the afternoon as cubers constantly have their fingers flying fast. As they talk, as they sit, as they wait.

Neha Poddar is watching from the sidelines, clicking away at her own cube waiting for the national women’s playoffs to happen later in the evening. “It surprises me too,” she says casting her glances through a room filled with men. “I don’t know why.”

Poddar got into cubing less than two years ago when a chance encounter with a cube seller on a local train prompted a whimsical buy. Some months later in September, she entered her first cubing competition, and now competes about once a month. “I do feel weird that I started at an older age,” she said. “I wish I’d started earlier. That’s what I keep trying to tell parents.”

The Rubik’s cube was created by a Hungarian professor, Ernõ Rubik, in 1974 to help explain three-dimensional problems to his students. It has since gone on to become a bestselling toy and spawn an array of competitive solving competitions. Though the first competitive cubing championship was held in 1982, the craze died out until the advent of the internet. With a widespread online community thriving, competitive cubing returned with a championship in 2003.

“What drew me was if someone else can do it, even I can do it,” says Kosha. “I thought once the cube is scrambled you can’t solve it. When you solve the first layer, it inspires you to do the second layer and ultimately you think you can do the whole thing.”

Almost all of the women present have a science or engineering background, adding heft to the impression that such fields are gathering grounds for potential cubers. “That is not important,” says Meenal Hedalkar, a third year engineering student. “It doesn’t make a difference at all.” Riddhi adds: “You just need to know what’s right, what’s left and how the clock moves. Even if you are an illiterate person who can read the time, you can do it.”

This particular tournament has three categories: speed, or who can solve it the fastest, single hand, “rescramble”, and also a separate women’s fastest category. Here in Mumbai, the winners in their respective categories will represent India in September at the Red Bull Rubik's Cube World Championship.

What function does a women-only category serve? “It’s about hand speed and mental strength,” says Kosha. “Whether you are a girl or boy shouldn’t matter. It’s not about muscle strength but mental strength.”

Komal Gupta has a different view. “If it is separate only will more girls come,” she says. Gupta, 24, describes the hobby as having a calming effect. “It relaxes my mind and makes me happy,” She is hanging out with two other outstation women cubers – it is the first time they are meeting, and they don’t know anyone else in the room either. “Some of my colleagues think it’s a waste of time or it’s too late to start,” says Aishwarya Hota, who has come from Bangalore.

"Some girls think it is difficult,” says Gupta. “But that is a wrong impression. When you start learning the methods you can solve it.”

Hota looks at me and asks, why don’t you try? I mumble something about not quite knowing what to do. “See,” she says, triumphantly, responding to why fewer women seem to cube. “You have the answer to your own question.”

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Updated Date: Aug 23, 2018 09:12:32 IST

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