A safari-suited cop stood outside the elevator on the 23 floor of the Taj Lands End in Mumbai. Tall, dark and fierce-looking. A gun holstered at his waist. Protecting Lord Jeffrey Archer, I thought, who was in Suite 2331. I was wrong. The cop was on guard outside Suite 2323. Inside which our Sachin Tendulkar was in a day-long business meeting. Archer is mad about cricket. Especially Test cricket. He hates the T20 tamasha. Almost as much as he hates Bollywood. But he admires our cricketers unconditionally. I wondered if anybody had told the bestselling English author that the former Indian master batsman was next door.
Ours is an old friendship. [Tendulkar] called me in and asked, 'Where's the book? Where's the book?' And he took a picture!Jeffrey Archer
I needn't have bothered. Archer had already met Tendulkar. "We had a long and interesting chat," he crowed triumphantly. Tendulkar invited him over. "He was in an important meeting and I didn't want to interrupt him," Archer said modestly. "But ours is an old friendship. He called me in and asked, 'Where's the book? Where's the book?' And he took a picture! I wouldn't have dreamed of asking him. It would have spoiled our friendship." I said, "But Tendulkar isn't much of a reader. I doubt he's read a Jeffrey Archer." He snorted, "So what? His wife and mother-in-law read! Every time I autograph books for them, it makes me popular with Tendulkar, I score brownie points with him." Then, a twist in the tale. "When I left, all the girls at Tendulkar's meeting followed me out! They wanted selfies and autographs. We did it in the corridor. I was touched. But Tendulkar was giggling! He found it funny."
Archer was in India this week, promoting it on a whistle-stop tour at Crossword bookstores in four cities; Gurgaon on Monday, then Bengaluru, Pune and finally Mumbai on Thursday. I've met him before. And I know Archer tends to repeat himself. He says the same thing in all his interviews and at his public events. No matter, there were serpentine queues at every bookstore to get his autograph. Almost as long as the lines outside banks. "I have been getting rid of my old 500 and 1000 rupee notes," he said nudging me in the ribs conspiratorially, "but I still have so many under the bed!"
I have been getting rid of my old 500 and 1000 rupee notes, but I still have so many under the bed!Jeffrey Archer
He's been to India 20 times in 30 years; he enjoys the cosmopolitan feel of Mumbai, the beauty of Delhi, the energy of Kolkata and the friendliness of Hyderabad. "Bengaluru is a city of traffic jams," he grumbled, "like Mumbai." But he likes coming back because Indians are great lovers of storytellers. Especially women. "Fifty thousand women go to bed with me every night. I try to keep them awake, turning pages to read what will happen next," he remarked deadpan. "When I first came here 30 years ago, women had no roles, they were wives and mothers, and subservient. The next generation in this country is startling. It's your best generation. Very impressive and exciting. You know why? It's because of the women! This lot is working. They are taking all the big jobs."
The last time I met him, Archer was not able to handle the heat and traffic of India, the demands of readers, the delays in local flights and the time spent waiting in the air for clearance to land. He was cranky and looked like the musician Sting in one of his give-em-hell moods. "I've got a constant headache," he had complained bitterly, "it's the heat and the air-conditioning, getting out of one and coming into the other all the time... a poor Englishman can't take it." This time, he was sunny and cheerful. Dressed in a striped yellow tee-shirt and baggy beige trousers, drinking orange juice as bright as his tee-shirt, wearing yellow socks. He courteously offered me coffee. At 76, he has a curious mind. But he's also gone a little deaf. And his forehead is so creased now that he said it looks like a crossword puzzle. I tried not to stare. For every question I asked him, Archer had three for me. More than his book, which he was thankful but also sad to come to the end of, he wanted to discuss cricket.
When I first came here 30 years ago, women had no roles, they were wives and mothers, and subservient... This lot is working. They are taking all the big jobs.Jeffrey Archer
Strangely, Archer's introduction to India was through his Oxford University classmate, the former Indian cricket captain Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi. "A great gentleman and a greater cricketer, we were close friends," he said with a touch of sadness. He pretended to be outraged that India had just won the second Test of the home series against England at Visakhapatnam. "This is a bad series," he grumbled, "and India also has Kohli, he's the best batsman in the world. But you also have the best numbers 3, 4 and 5. When Rahul Dravid went, I was glad to see the back of him. When Sachin Tendulkar went, I was glad to see the back of him. And when VVS Laxman went, I was glad to see the back of him. But India produced three more who are every bit as good!" I wondered when he found time to follow cricket because Archer begins his day at 6am and does four two-hour shifts of writing. "Some people work until 3am, they're owls, that's not me, I am a lark, early bed and early riser," he said. Fishing out his cell phone he opened a Sky Sports Cricket app and said, "I follow cricket in my breaks on this. But the damn thing's not working in India! And it's rude of them to hold a Test when I'm working!" He came to see me off and at the door suddenly shouted in my ear, "England's going to beat India in the third Test at Mohali on Saturday, yah!" I said, "Dream on!" And Lord Jeffrey Archer giggled. He found it funny.