Why Jeffrey Archer’s magic in India never fades

The writer was in the country for the eleventh time – to launch his new book ‘Mightier than the Sword’.

I was in the ninth grade when I first read Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel (1979). It was an overwhelming read, more than 600 pages long, and I was so proud to have finished it.

I’d borrowed it from the school library after a teacher had recommended the book for its masterful plot about two men – born on the same date but unknown to each other – whose fates and facts of life are intertwined in many unusual and striking ways. The book remans Archer’s bestselling work, and is about to enter its 100th reprint.

Set in India

Archer’s fondness for India is known to all. The 74-year-old writer was in the country last week for a five-city tour at Crossword Bookstores to launch and promote his latest book, Mightier than the Sword, the fifth in the series of his Clifton Chronicles, which follows the life and times of Irish poet Harry Clifton.

While the earlier books are set against the socio-political backgrounds of England and USA, the sixth in the series, Archer revealed, will have eight chapters played out in Mumbai. Offering his audiences a sneak peek during the Pune launch, he said he would make his protagonist, Sebastian (son of Harry and Emma Clifton), fall in love with an Indian girl.

Old-fashioned appeal

Archer’s style of storytelling is simple; his stories are, however, full of twists, revelations and unpredictable endings. They may not be great works of profound prose, but what works for him is the fact that his readers are more interested in the story than in the telling of it. Which is why, perhaps, his most favourite Indian author is the inimitable R.K. Narayan.

In a country like India, where there are readers of all kinds, an author like Jeffery Archer, whose books are known to be well-paced and “unputdownable”, is greatly revered. And it’s not just his novels that are a rage here. His short story collections which include A Quiver Full of Arrows (1980), A Twist in the Tale (1988), Twelve Red Herrings (1994), To Cut a Long Story Short (2000), Cat O'Nine Tales (2006), and And Thereby Hangs a Tale (2010), are equally popular.

India has always been a loyal audience and a lucrative market for books by foreign authors, but Archer is a favourite. This was his eleventh visit to the country, which confirms that the admiration is mutual. “There were almost 500 people in each bookstore and the audience was a mix of both college-goers and adults. The response was phenomenal,” says Lipika Bhushan, Marketing Consultant, Pan Macmillan India.

A perennial bestseller here

But certainly, it’s more than just his fondness for India or vice-versa that ensures this stardom. It’s remarkable, for in a country where in the last few years or so, popular reading culture has been dominated by an Amish Tripathi, a Chetan Bhagat or a Ravinder Singh, Archer, a foreign author, continues to rank high on the charts when his books are released.

After all, his books are not the typical boy-meets-girl-and-falls-in-love tale; he brings a bit of everything to the table: an autobiographical account of his near-bankruptcy experience (Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, 1976), a fictitious version of the legend of Seward's Folly through a mysterious letter to a son from his father (A Matter of Honour, 1986), and a dramatic and contemporary retelling of Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (A Prisoner of Birth, 2008), among others.

What makes Archer strike the bull’s eye in India, then? Part of the reason is reputation: those who have grown up on his easy-to-read but gripping stories continue to buy his new books. But that’s not all.

This may sound like ironic in the age of Murakami and Franzen, of Atwood and Mitchell, but to many Indian readers, Jeffrey Archer continues to represent the best of global fiction. The more ‘cerebral’ among mass market readers have their Dan Brown or even their John Grisham, but for thousands, Archer is the best writer of English novels that they can read. And that might explain why the 74-year-old former peer who has actually served time in jail keeps coming to the country every time he writes a new book. India reads Archer like few other countries in the world do.

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