I must be the only person ever to have been to Agra in India and not seen the Taj Mahal! I have just been in India, for the first time in my life, on a whirlwind book promotion tour for my publishers: Four cities in eight days, seventeen interviews, three bookstore talks and signings, the after-dinner speech at their sales conference (well, pre-dinner as is the Indian custom) and one tennis match. Pan Macmillan believe India, with its population of 1.2 billion, is potentially one of the biggest markets in the world for books, and having been there, I can believe it.

Well, someone's relaxed on an Indian road....!
Well, someone’s relaxed on an Indian road….!

There is a real appetite for fiction – and in particular for quality fiction. I found myself time and time again defending crime fiction – where it is still regarded as “genre” fiction as opposed to serious fiction – but what I loved was the passion for books and reading.

Being interviewed by Zac O'Yeah in Landmark Bookstore, Bangalore
Being interviewed by Zac O’Yeah in Landmark Bookstore, Bangalore

My time there was much too short – flying to New Delhi, then to Agra, then to Bangalore, then to Mumbai (which many locals prefer to still call Bombay) – which I loved the most. The Delhi to Agra journey was the scariest drive of my life, in the back of a clapped-out taxi with no functioning seat belts, for five and a half hours, most of them feeling like I was inches from death… The Indian driving experience is best – erm – not to be experienced! Not only is there no lane discipline on their crowded roads, but most people seem to prefer straddling the central lines, turning a two lane road into single carriage way, only moving when hooted at. There was so much hooting I began to wonder if Indian tax drivers steered with their horn! It was not unusual to be undertaking a giant lorry (with no rear lights), swerving past a motorized rickshaw on the inside lane, with a motorbike with three people on board coming at you in the wrong direction, and then having to swerve around a group of men having a conversation in the middle of the road, seemingly sublimely unaware of all the vehicles hurtling past them on both sides at 60mph! One local resident explained: “Our traffic is like fish – they are all swimming in between each other and usually they manage to miss each other. You just have to hope when you do hit something else you don’t hit it too hard.” Hmmnnnn!

Lovely audience at Crossword Bookstore, Mumbai
Lovely audience at Crossword Bookstore, Mumbai

My schedule had allowed for me to visit the Taj Mahal on Friday morning. But unfortunately it is closed on Fridays – and apparently has been for several hundred years. That was the only scheduling error in an otherwise brilliant, magical trip. One of the many highlights was being treated to dinner at the Bombay Cricket Club. Geoff Duffield, Pan Macmillan’s Group Sales and Marketing Director accompanied me for much of the trip, and on our final night we were taken by one of their major customers, Ravi Lalwani, to the quite splendid Cricket Club. It had all the colonial elegance and grandeur one would expect, but with something I had become accustomed to in India, the very relaxed atmosphere everywhere. That was the biggest and most delightful surprise of all to me about India, the friendliness of everyone I encountered. A truly wonderful, enchanting, fascinating nation. I can’t wait to go back and spend more time exploring this country – and of course flogging some books….