From Falaknuma, the restaurant on the ninth floor of the Clarks Avadh hotel, the view at night is stunning. Through its 360-degree sweep of glass windows at this height, you can see the boulevard that in a kilometre’s time pours into the 202-year-old — yet spankingly contemporary — arcade space of Hazratganj with its recently refurbished art deco trimmings and yellow highstreet shop facades.
From this height, you can see the cascading but firm silhouette of the tomb of Sahadat Ali Khan, the fifth nawab of Avadh who ruled the province in the late 18th-early 19th century. You can also see a garish birthday party within the hotel precincts in full swing. There are more than a hundred guests walking about and sitting amidst balloons and flashing lights, appreciating the pre-teen birthday girl performing an item number to 90s Hindi filmi music. Effectively, from Falaknuma (literally ‘the mirror of the sky’), you can see almost all of Lucknow, both the grand and the banal. It is, however, far too early to be able to see Uttar Pradesh from this view.
It’s not even been a month since the Samajwadi Party swept the assembly polls with Akhilesh Yadav becoming India’s youngest chief minister. But already, without any evidence, there is a sense of something new kicking into the state that forms the marrow of what’s still called ‘national politics’ in a country that is increasingly seeing its federal qualities being displayed.
The anointment of Akhilesh as CM marks a confirmation that the old stitchwork of state-level coalition politics may have given way to single-party regimes. If the 2007 assembly polls that brought Mayawati’s BSP overwhelmingly to power was seen as an exception, the 2012 results correct that view. UP’s electorate, the object of such scrutiny and post-poll autopsies, seems to have figured that to get this behemoth moving, it’s best to give one mahout rather than four (blind?) men a shot. And it is Lucknow that encapsulates, with swaggering exaggeration, this new restlessness that is keen to shake off the long tail of the BIMARU tag.
Gomti Nagar is to Lucknow what Gurgaon and Noida — despite being in Haryana and UP respectively — is to New Delhi. The development and construction boom here is visible. High-end premium residential projects, malls, commercial properties and business centres have been springing up.
Lucknow’s advantage is that it has always been unabashedly urban. It has always been a city. It just needs a push to move from being the ‘City of Nawabs’ on postcards to being a full-fledged 21st capital city with the luxury of having an established template of modernity of its own. If the renewed current passing through its veins can be transfused to UP as a whole, we could, over the next few decades, see India’s ‘North’ — notorious for dragging the ‘South’ down — convert the ‘City of Nawabs’ cliché into a palpable way of life in India.
In that sense, the gargantuan sprawling sandstone set-piece that is the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Gomti Park is an anachronism. While its mammoth price tag continues to be a cause for disenchantment with Mayawati and her future prospects, its very existence sits awkwardly with a futuristic Lucknow. It may serve as a holiday site during weekends, but like India Gate in Delhi, Victoria Memorial in Kolkata and the Gateway of India in Mumbai, the ‘Dalit pride’ park doesn’t fall into the larger plan of 2012 Lucknow, UP or India.
Back at Falaknuma, two elderly men in identical white shirts and black trousers are trying to convince a third elderly man in a white shirt and black trousers that the time is not 8.36 at night but 10.36. Like three veteran courtiers in a Mughal court, they are discussing one of the little wonders of the kingdom: the beauty of the ATM machine.
“Punch in the numbers and the money will come out. How beautiful is that?” one of them points out as if discussing a couplet. A few years ago, perhaps, the same white-haired gentlemen partaking in a quiet dinner of kebabs, korma, roti and Foster’s beer would have chatted about politics. Not today. Their sober soireé takes place in the backdrop of a singer, a sitarist and a tabla-player restarting their ghazal performance after a dinner break. A sense of something new waiting to happen is palpable across the large dining room.
I gaze out at Lucknow. The speeding cars seem to shoot out from the Kaiserbagh roundabout below as if by a new centrifugal force.