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Jeffrey Archer wants to be India's transport minister

May 15, 2009 12:34 IST
Like many of my contemporaries, I discovered Jeffrey Archer way before I was meant to. In my uncle's forgotten bookshelf dating back to his uncle's bachelor days, I had chanced upon this row of shiny paperbacks with titles that burned themselves on my pre-pubescent mind. The book that I picked up eventually was The Prodigal Daughter, something that I revisited as an adult a good few years later.

I am no great fan of Archer. But there was a time when not having read any of his bestselling books was considered sacrilege among your peers. And I dutifully went through his seminal works -- Kane and Able being the foremost.

That phase was short lived. I shrugged off peer pressure and went on to discover my own palate.

It has been more than a decade since I read any Jeffrey Archer, but I could not resist the temptation of meeting him in Mumbai, on a promotional tour for his latest, Paths of Glory.

Tagging along were my cousin, who confessed to being an Archer fan in her teenage years, and my nine-year-old niece, who argued zealously about Enid Blyton being more famous.

At a suburban bookshop we joined scores of fans and some curious onlookers as Archer took centrestage. And the 68-year-old bestselling author and controversial politician who has served prison term in the UK, was anything but boring.

Deep, dramatic frown lines on his forehead, a voice that crackled with clarity, Archer began on a disappointingly predictable note. "I have been to your country twice in the last two years... I would like to put my name forward to be your transport minister," he said.

"I love you on the road. This is the only nation on earth where cars run with the white line under them."

The evening, as we soon realised, was not so much about fans quizzing their favourite author about plot, character or narrative technique (though there was a lively Q&A session later). It was about Archer the charming raconteur, the astute salesman.

'Lord' Archer (the emcee must have mentioned the title some 12 times) promoted his latest work with such panache, that we wondered if we were watching a glorified TVC Skyshop promotional.

Archer had "promised to sign every single copy of Paths of Glory this evening." The catch? He would not sign any personal/old copies. You had to buy a new copy from the bookshop right there and produce the bill. Personal copies were confiscated at the entrance.

Archer did give a brilliant account of the story which has been topping bestsellers' lists in India. "Those of you who have seen the film Chariots of Fire will find similarities with this (book)," he said. Set in the 1920s, Paths of Glory is about a young Cambridge scholar "who had never seen India or seen a picture of Mount Everest but decides to be the first person to stand on top of the world."

But that is not really what Paths of Glory is all about. And in true Jeffrey Archer style there is a lot of drama, glamour, intrigue, murder, love, betrayal and politics along the way. Over the next few minutes, the author kept us engrossed with his livewire stand-up act.

And then his special gift for the country which sells pirated versions of his titles at every traffic signal.

"This is a secret... I am saying this for the first time," Archer worked up a climax. Because of what India did to my book, I wanted you to be the first to hear."

Kane and Able, his most successful book till date, is in its 30th year. "It was the first book that you so generously made a bestseller," said Archer. Kane and Able has been rewritten. It has taken "nine months, 500 hours and 27,000 words," said Archer and is "7,200 words shorter than the original."

"If you are real fans, listen carefully," commanded Lord Archer to his audience. To be launched on October 3, 2009, Kane and Able will be available as a limited edition (200 copies) leather bound, gold leaf format, priced approximately Rs 15,000. There will be cheaper versions as well, but none as prestigious as the gold leaf of course. "Wouldn't it be nice if they all sold out in India?" He looked at the audience lovingly.

Thank your loyal fans by making a sales pitch?

As the evening rolled on, we were given an account of Archer's early days, his struggle in the US to climb to the top of the pile and how he managed to topple Robert Ludlum from the numero uno position.

My niece was quite fidgety by then. As the interactive session progressed, we headed for the exit, after paying for the Enid Blyton she had picked up.

"When can I read a Jeffrey Archer?" she asked.

"In a few years from now," my cousin replied.

"What makes him so special?" she asked again.

We hope she'll discover the answer someday.

Text: Chandrima Pal. Photo: Hitesh Harisinghani

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