A whistle-stop five-day tour of three south Indian state capitals (Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad) yielded a variety of impressions but here is my overall verdict: Bangalore is the worst-managed of the three and Hyderabad by far the best.
All that you have heard about Bangalore traffic is true. It can take up to an hour to get to a residential suburb like Koramangala, where many commercial enterprises have also moved, and much longer to Whitefield which is as Gurgaon is to Delhi. The first phase of the Metro in the city centre is due to open soon but it is not for this reason alone that large tracts of road are dug up, potholed or diverted. Planning and maintenance in this once stately, well-preserved and tree-filled city have nosedived. So has its temperate climate. Rabid construction has taken a toll on its cool weather.
Mercifully, some landmarks still thrive, upholding the city’s tradition of hospitality. Principally, Koshy’s, the famous street corner coffee house that remains an atmospheric shabby-chic meeting point with Prem Koshy, its genial owner, dispensing reasonably-priced food with warm smiles. (Among the off-the-menu delicacies I sampled was a delicately flavoured, piping-hot tender coconut soup.) Bangalore is also the most exuberantly cosmopolitan of the three capitals, buzzing with young professionals. At Indigo, the popular rock music radio station where I was a guest, Assamese RJ Shweta Rao, who has set up radio stations in Mumbai and Dubai, was a marvel in multitasking: pattering for 40 minutes, losing neither a chuckle nor cue, working cell phone texts, laptop and headphones, while dexterously playing hits by chartbuster Adele.
Chennai retains its graceful mix of the old and new, adhering to both civic sense and civility. It has a modernising but manageable aspect: lively, well-written newspapers, excellent journalists, and denizens vigorously engaged in intellectual, political and cultural pursuits. Arriving after polling day, the chief topic of discussion naturally was the expected return of Jayalalithaa, whose shop-soiled image is being given a new polish. Many of her old sins of omission and commission are forgotten or glossed over. Novelist-turned-journalist Vaasanthi’s sympathetic new biography of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader is a hit. Topic number two of debate is the ongoing battle for control of The Hindu, the venerable Mahavishnu of Mount Road. Everyone, including my hotel manager, had an opinion, as if it was his personal family feud.
Hyderabad is the southern capital with the greatest sheen; its airport is the best-designed, managed and efficient, far better than Delhi’s unwieldy T3 with its hideous carpeting and freaky murals. The freeway to the city is speedy and splendidly landscaped; and though the natural rock forms of Banjara Hills are replaced wall-to-wall by office complexes and shopping malls, some past treasures jostle for attention with Hyderabad’s modern skyline.
I visited two of the most talked-about heritage restorations: the 19th century Chowmahalla palace near the Charminar and the Falaknuma, five kilometres south. The first, a former home of the Nizams, is now a large orderly museum open to the public, its gardens, chandeliered marble halls, fountain courts and galleries drawing throngs of visitors. The Falaknuma, an ostentatious European-style home of a prime minister, let to the Taj group on a 60-year lease, has taken 15 years and an investment of Rs 100 crore to create the last word in luxury. Perched on a hill, a giddy blue-and-white confection of decoration, it offers vistas all the way to Golconda fort.
Ranjit Philipose, the hotel’s general manager, who has managed Taj properties in London and Boston, took me on a tour. Together with the exacting taste of Nizam’s Turkish-born wife, Princess Esra, he has succeeded in recreating a vision of restrained splendour. “I was given two years to create the number one hotel in India and the world. When the Nizam visited this winter he said, “Pehle se behtar hai” (It is better than the original). I took that as my best compliment.”