The Archer Aims For The Heart

Jeffrey Archer on Landmark tour!

..proclaims a hoarding on Andheri Link Road a few feet before Infiniti Mall which houses the Landmark store. The lower two floors look fairly sane, I think to myself as far as weekdays go. Even the second floor which looms into sight as the escalator rides up looks remarkably normal. Then I notice the mountain of bags lying at the entrance. And I’m stopped by the polite but firm female guard who shakes her head almost sorrowfully and tells me that I cannot carry my battered copy of As the Crow Flies in.

I push my way past the jewelery counter, the New Releases rack and past the music section. Voila!! What’s a celebrity without the crowd? Archer has succeeded in drawing the mob to the store on a weekday. It’s so crowded that people are stepping on each other’s toes even among the magazines racks that signal the start of that heaven that is Landmark’s book section.

I slither through the crowd in a manner perfected by years of Mumbai train travel and end up right at the back, smushed up against Movies while Jeffrey Archer regales a crowd from a stage in what is otherwise the aisle between Maps and Language.

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All around people are standing, waving cameras, cellphones, microphones and books in the air. Thank goodness for my genes, thank goodness I’m wearing heels I murmur, doing my yoga stretch of toes, torso, neck and forehead. Small wonder then that the guy next to me jerks his head around in curiosity. And from the corner of my eye, I follow his gaze zip down to my feet. I want to yell,

Yes! Heels are the only way I’ll ever be on eye-level with you…on tiptoe! Now how about tearing your eyes away from my fabulous legs and towards the guest? We are in the presence of peerage after all.

But I refrain and try changing position instead. After a repeat (thrice!) I give up on the priorities of mankind and focus on the man on stage.

Archer speaks as well as he writes. White hair notwithstanding, he leaps nimbly from IPL to Bollywood to writing and politics. The last actually comes in only as an almost unconscious reference in conversation and is not touched upon again. When someone in the audience tries to steer him back to politics, he darts away so quickly he has the audience laughing with him.

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The audience is hanging on to every word and even the seasoned TV anchors are laughing along with him. I pause in my live-tweeting to listen to an anecdote of his previous day’s meeting with kids and when he ends with,

I must say the girls are so much smarter than the boys!

…I join in the loud applause and laughter. As I sink back to terra firma I wonder how I’ll describe him in my post. Politician? Jailbird? Novelist? Firang-in-India? I settle for Charmer. And true to that description he winds off by saying that an author is someone who has access to so many minds…and is very privileged indeed. Indeed. Well-said.

Now he’s telling us that he has a dinner in 40 minutes at a place 2 hours away but that he’s not leaving the store until the books are all signed so we can all go have a cup of coffee and a chat if we like and he’ll still be there. Only, could we relax and not trample each other?

Hah! I smirk, you’ve never been to India, Lord Archer…wait and watch! Sure enough, there is pandemonium in exactly 24 seconds with the Landmark staff trying frantically to get the chairs out of the way, TV crew shifting angles, journos vying for soundbites and the junta being junta. I am too far from the stage to see his reaction but what to do, we are like wonly.

The ruckus is silenced by a loud, very loud, shrill female voice airing her disapproval and screeching,

Please, I say!! There’s no need to crowd around, I say!!! Let’s just be civilised and queue up, I say. What is this crowding and rushing and pushing, I say?!!!

The whole floor stands stock-still. Effective, I say and the staff look almost relieved.

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I hang back and walk around, watching people mill about. Chattering teenagers, young couples, older couples, people in their 40s are all walking around. Everyone is toting A Prisoner of Birth.

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I run through all the Archers I’ve read, in my head and wonder how good this one will be. I think wistfully of my own As the Crow Flies lying on the security guard’s shelf and debate on buying a new copy. I settle instead for guzzling juice and biscuits.

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An hour later I’m still there, watching from the stage at the back, now free of TV cameras. The crowd has thinned out as well so I think it’s time to get in line for the signature. As I near the stage, the girl in front of the table practically yanks me by the collar (except I don’t have one) with a withering look. My books are then snatched out of my hand and thrust into Jeffrey Archer’s face and then thrown back at me before I have a chance to react. She certainly isn’t one of the Landmark staff. What is it darling, I smirk in my mind? The pretty-bimbette-swooning-over-you act? Or the in-thrall-of-goras syndrome? Or the I HAVE TO BE IN THE LIMELIGHT Page 3 habit? Well, whatever, my books are signed and that’s all I care.

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And as I prepare to jump off the stage, Jeffrey Archer calls out to me,

Miss? Did I sign your book?

I smile back and him and nod a yes.

Back home, I open my bag. I have bought A Prison Diary as a keepsake to be able to tell myself (since I’m probably not going to have grandkids) that I saw the author in person. In my other hand is Twelve Red Herrings and I pause, smiling.

It’s the 14th July 1994. The sun is streaming in through the windows of a high-ceilinged classrooms, fans whirring loudly and drowning out the nervous chatter of a 100-odd teenagers. It’s the first day of junior college. And I don’t know a soul there.

She walks in cool and poised in black jeans and a tee-shirt so smoothly that all of us in the third row, mid-introduction gape. She glides into the empty seat in front of me and puts her bag down. Then she turns around and smiles and in a hesitant voice asks me my name. We are interrupted a minute later by the entry of the professor but I’ve just had enough to time to answer her question about my hobbies, with a monosyllable,

BOOKS.

The conversation resumes in the breaks and between lectures. Everyone is excited and nervous and wanting to know each other and ally themselves with whoever looks strongest, prettiest, smartest and coolest. I wonder why she’s paying any attention to me when there are so many others vying for her attention. After class, we walk out together and stop at her bus-stop. The others disperse. Abruptly she turns around and says,

I just know we are going to be friends. I knew it the minute you said that you loved books. I do too! There’s my bus, see you tomorrow!

14 years later, her voice travels echoes in my mind, whispering in math class, telling me about the book she finished last night and ending with,

My favorite is Never Stop on the Motorway. It’s sooo scary!

I’ve learnt by then of her weird fascination with spooky thrills. I smile and pencil in on the page after Archer’s signature,

For my best friend,

You were right. It was a good story. 14 years later, here’s the book again just so I can prove that I do listen to you. And you can prove that I agreed you were right. :-)

And long after it’s fashionable to say that I like Jeffrey Archer, I’ve finally met the man whose words have had such deep meaning on the most important friendship in my life. Thank you, Lord Archer, it has been a pleasure, a real pleasure.

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