On the heels of the launch of “Sea of Poppies” Amitav Ghosh recalls his salad days and tells Anjana Rajanabout a Delhi that was less green but buzzing all the same

Tutankhamen. Get it? You won’t if you are a student of Egyptology. You will if you were a contemporary of Amitav Ghosh at Delhi University during the 1970s. That was when the Delhi Transport Corporation launched a new bus service between Central Secretariat and the University. “I still remember when the 210 was started,” grins Ghosh. “The university was full of 210 jokes, like 210-khamen!”

Now that the Delhi Metro has made travelling to DU that much easier, it might have spawned a whole new generation of puns. But that’s not all that has changed about the city. Looking out from the 10th floor of his Taj Mahal hotel room in central Delhi, the celebrated writer is mesmerised by the profusion of green below. It is living proof that Delhi’s tree cover has increased abundantly since his student days. Ghosh, wanting to face the window so as not to miss a moment of scenic pleasure, feels this is one thing the municipal authorities have done just right.

Looking at the Capital now, says Ghosh, he feels people would never believe how it used to be — like a small, sleepy town. Hauz Khas was the city’s furthest point. You could hire a bicycle for a day, visit all your friends and return it in the evening. “It was an unrecognisable Delhi,” muses the smiling Ghosh, who lived here first from 1972 to ’78 as a university student and then from ’83 to ’88, when he taught at DU.

Ghosh has lived around the world. But Kolkata remains his pivot. “I think of my life like a compass, and one point is always set in Kolkata.” Ghosh even puts down his expertise in tea to his being Bengali. “In Bengal people generally know about tea,” he says, infusing a pot of Muscatel for precisely five minutes. Five minutes later, he looks at the colour of the steaming brew with satisfaction. So much for home base!

But every city has its own uniqueness. And Delhi, despite its chaotic traffic and its high prices, also impressed him for its “incredibly vibrant intellectual community.” The St. Stephen’s alumnus — earlier, he went to Doon School in Dehra Dun — gives India’s education system a pat on the back when he recounts how “Oxford was a lot of fun, but intellectually it was way behind Delhi.”

Oxford had lots of good libraries and other facilities, but, he says, “what students were reading when I went there, I had read way back.” This was not because he was a celebrated writer in the making, but because “in some ways our education system is so rigorous.” Today, having taught in many universities, he says he has “never found a place as engaging, as vibrant and as demanding as Delhi.”

As a student, “what I learnt was, the learning process never stops,” he says. Not surprising. With contemporaries like Ramachandra Guha, Mihir Shah, Piyush Pandey and Harsh Mander, Ghosh is not alone in being the toast of the town. “I feel extraordinarily blessed,” says Ghosh, pointing out how rare it is to find a group of cohorts who have made such an impact on their environment.

But the memories of Delhi that are “graven” on his mind are from the days of the Emergency. He was then working with The Indian Express. The police had a habit of walking in any time. “We used to set the paper in a box called the flange,” explains Ghosh, “and breaking the flange was a very big thing.”

To have the flange broken to accommodate a story brought by a journalist was considered a high point in that journalist’s career, says Ghosh, revealing the origin of the phrase ‘breaking news’. “In my one-and-a-half years at The Indian Express, we broke the flange four times.”

Another event that shook Delhi was the assassination of Indira Gandhi. “I was taking a class that day, and somehow I made myself go on with the class,” he recalls. “I’ve written at great length about the ’84 riots,” says Ghosh. “To be teaching at DU at that time was incredibly demanding. It taught you a certain stoicism.”

That brings us back to today’s Delhi. The pall of those days lifted, one can go freely about the streets again, and that is one of the big changes, notes Ghosh. Not that he has too much time to visit his old haunts. Here to promote his latest novel, “Sea of Poppies”, published by Penguin, Ghosh must find his periodic resurfacing with a book and the ensuing whirlwind book tours like the storm after the silence. But he is not given to cribbing, it would seem. “This time it’s not so hectic,” he avers. “Four days.”

Four days, and only one direction: Ever upwards!

( anjanar@thehindu.co.in)