This last week, in India, I visited six cities in seven days: Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Calcutta and New Delhi. This is my 11th trip to India and from the very beginning the signs were good. For a start, the temperature on arrival in Mumbai was a cool 22 degrees and I was told it had rained for the past two days, though I’ve actually never seen rain in Mumbai before. Because of a new eight-lane highway, we got from the airport to the Taj Hotel in the city centre in just 40 minutes, despite a minor hold-up. As the car was idling in a traffic jam, a young boy who couldn’t have been more than six or seven tapped on my car window. He was holding a pile of books. I wound the window down, and he asked: ‘Would you like the latest Jeffrey Archer?’ I smiled and told him, ‘I am the latest Jeffrey Archer.’ It seems that an enterprising Indian picks up all the latest bestsellers from Heathrow the day you are published and takes them to India. They’re for sale on the streets of Mumbai three days later at half the price.
Had dinner with my hosts from the Crossword Bookstores, before rushing up to my room to watch England play Ireland in Dublin. I was so pleased that the hotel was showing the match on channel 37, although I did have a back-up plan — to find an Irish pub in Mumbai. There’s an Irish pub in every city on earth. I was so tired I fell asleep during the second half, only to wake up and find out we’d been trounced.
At breakfast with Ronnie Screwvala, the former MD of Disney India, we discussed the possibility of a joint deal to produce the ‘Clifton Chronicles’ for a television series. He warned me that English period dramas, such as Downton Abbey, didn’t do very well in India because Bollywood dominated the market. We also discussed how Kane and Abel had been stolen by Bollywood without them even bothering to approach me or my agent. Another interesting fact from our conversation: there are now fewer Chinese and Russian villains in modern films, because those two countries are such important markets for Hollywood — the new villains all come from North Korea.
The flight from Pune to Bangalore was at 4 a.m. with a planeful of bright-eyed Indian early-risers. I addressed the Institute of Management there and was amazed to learn over lunch with the principal that ten young people are killed every day in Mumbai crossing railway lines, many — amazingly — while taking selfies with the trains rushing up behind them. Twenty more a day are killed crossing the roads. Indeed, I witnessed a woman who must have been around 80 crossing a three-lane highway with a speed limit of 70 mph. She just set off, looking neither to left nor right, assuming the traffic would stop for her, or at least avoid her. She survived and no doubt has done the same thing every morning and evening for her entire life.
The following day I addressed the Indian School of Business, a management college in Hyderabad that ranks in the top 20 business schools in the world. Thirty per cent of the students are female, and one young woman told me that there are 62,000 cases of rape waiting for a trial date. Don’t hold your breath. In lieu of the law Indian girls have to learn to look after themselves. Rajdeep Mukherjee, vice president of Pan Macmillan India, admitted that his 12-year-old daughter already has a karate black belt. All the girls do karate, he explained, for self-defence. I read in the Times of India that one in six children will be abused before the age of six, usually by a family member. When I later put this figure to the commissioner of police, he thought it was more likely to be one in three. I also learned that the Indian government has banned a BBC documentary into the horrific gang rape case that has taken three years to come to trial, though all four assailants were convicted. Many of the young female journalists interviewing me beg me to look up the BBC report when I get back to London, and planned to protest against the ban, although they admit that many people had already picked it up on YouTube.
The final stop is Calcutta, where I wondered if anyone would turn up for my talk, as India were playing the West Indies in the Cricket World Cup at the same time. Luckily, and to my surprise, there are still a few people in India who do not consider cricket a religion.
Arriving back in London, I learn that while I had been in the air, the England team had been eliminated. I’m just glad I wasn’t in India at the time.
Jeffrey Archer’s novel Mightier than the Sword, the fifth instalment in the Clifton Chronicles, is out now in hardback.