"The Sweet Smell of Hash Filled the Nooks and Corners of St. Stephen's" – Interview with Siddhartha Basu, India's No. 1 Quiz Master (Part II)

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The iconic face of Indian TV sits down with The Delhi Walla.

Calcutta-born Siddhatha Basu is widely recognized as father of television quiz shows in South Asia. Managing Director of Synergy Adlabs, he has produced TV classics like Quiz Time and Kaun Banega Crorepati. Mr. Basu lived in Delhi all these years but recently shifted to Bombay. The Delhi Walla badgered him on his life, wife, career, and just why (oh why) he ditched our Delhi.

[This is the second of the three-part interview series Mr. Basu gave to Mayank Austen Soofi. In the first he compared lives in Bombay and Delhi.]

Babu, how was Delhi like in your childhood days?

My first home in Delhi, in the early 60’s, was in Defence Colony, in E block. It was a single row on Ring Road, which was then a not too hectic single carriageway, and there was a strip of ground between the houses and road, big enough to play cricket. Our neighbours were mainly firangis. It was a neighbourhood of low rise kothis, and I remember cycling for hours through the lanes and bylanes of the colony.

During childhood in Delhi I also recall the sirens and blackouts, and taped and papered windows, and trenches. 3 wars – ‘62, ‘65, and then in 1971, when I came back to Delhi from Madras for college.

Are there things which have stayed same—then and now?

Novel Delhi experiences were power cuts and sleeping out in the chhat after drenching it with water, but waking up under a kambal in the morning chill and scrambling indoors into the barsaati when it rained. Then again in winter it used to be great to exhale mouthfuls of mist and sit around a fireplace or bonfires. You know between Andrews Ganj and Malviya Nagar there was just farmland and jungle.

I can’t believe that.

Yeah, we’d get stuck for hours at the railway phataks where the Jangpura, Seva Nagar and Safdarjang flyovers are now. South and Central Delhi were quietly suburban and pretty rustic in places, not the overgrown and choked colonies you have today.

You read books?

Partly as a somewhat isolated child in that neighbourhood, I developed a ravenous reading habit. I used to devour books. I’d read and re-read Rajaji’s Ramayana and Mahabharata several times by the time I was 8. In the next few years, apart from piles of comics, I’d read all the voluminous western classics in my father’s library, loads of Perry Mason type pulp fiction, the Russian masters.

You graduated from St. Stephen’s College. How was the campus scene?

Those were heady times. On the one hand there was revolution, radicalism and youth power, on the other there was psychedelia, make love not war, and flower power. You walked the talk between Che Guevara and Jim Morrison. Street theatre came into its own and there was a lot of fiery socialism in the arts.

It was also a time of free flowing Woodstock type rock folk events. The sweet smell of hash seemed everywhere, while an intrepid few tripped on acid, and others on Mandrax meandered in a moronic daze. It was literally a mind blowing time, where some lost it forever.

Did you commute in blue lines?

Hitch hiking was the cool way to travel Delhi’s long distances, and if you had a bike, it was most likely trussed up Easy Rider style, with long handlebars and vibrant colours.

There was no sleek metro shimmying underground through Old Delhi, and the wheezing buses were as miserably packed and ill-mannered as ever. Taxis were affordable if you shared and took the Filmistan route from campus to CP. And phat-phats powered by ageing Harley Davidsons chugged back and forth doing the Red Fort and Regal beat.

What were the college-days distractions?

I spent most of my college years shuttling between the quiet symmetries and serene spaces of St Stephen’s and the theatre zone around Mandi House. Theatre was a passion. It was pretty active at college. We’d toured with a production of Hamlet, and at the end of my second year, some of us formed Theatre Action Group, which was rather avant garde for its time. Led by Barry John, we did a number of innovative and landmark productions.

You had a bachelor pad?

I had shacked up in asbestos roofed barsatis in Defence Colony. Then in a garage and later I graduated to an above-the-garage annexe. I also did odd jobs doing black and white documentary filmmaking at TVNF, radio, commentaries and plays. A single room annexe with a little kitchenette was our whole and sole home when Anita and I married 8 years after we met.

There ended the good old bachelor days.

Yes. We soon moved south to Saket, which was home when our children were born, pushing further out at Vasant Kunj, where they did their entire schooling down the road at Vasant Valley, before we finally settled at Sainik Farms.

Ah, I have heard very good things about your Sainik Farms bungalow.

It’s an unpretentious garden home built by an architect friend which distils the best of Delhi for me. There’s a big, lovely peepal tree dominating the garden. It is green everywhere. Fruits and flowers, and bushes full of birds.

You are a Bengali and sorry, no hilsa flows in Yamuna. How did you take to the city’s tandoori chicken cuisine?

I grew up loathing fish.


Yes, that’s right. I still can’t handle fishy smells and kaantas. So kukkad at Kake da Hatti was liberation. Even as I’ve looked lean and hungry most of my life, I’m big on food, and Delhi is for me the best city to eat in and the place where things taste best. The produce is better, each season has its specialties, and winter really stirs your appetite.

Delhi today is spoilt for choice in terms of cuisines from different parts of the country and beyond. I’ve grown too–at the waistline and in taste. I actually like some kinds of fish and can savour fish moilly and karimeen Kerala style, and even bhekti and smoked hilsa (where its million fine bones are steamed to melting) at Oh Calcutta.

[In the third part , Mr. Basu discussed his life before and after Kaun Banega Crorepati, and what disturbs him most about Delhi.]