Reading, Writing And Hemingway

I must have been 13 or so when my dad caught me standing on my toes at his bookshelf, trying to stealthily nudge out a copy of The Godfather from the top shelf — that was where he kept the books he didn’t want me and my brother to get to.

Imagine my surprise when he dusted it off and handed it to me with a casual, “It’s a great book. Just ignore the dirty parts.” (Meaning the sex, of course.:)) I paid no attention to that bit of advise but that’s another story for another day.

I thought of that incident when I began to write this post because although I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, there was something else I was first, thanks to my father: a reader.

For my birthdays, my dad’s gift to me was usually a book– an Enid Blyton or a mystery by Agatha Christie or by Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. In my early teens it was perhaps a Charles Dickens or a P.G. Wodehouse. He encouraged me to read almost anything so long as it was what he considered good literature. He was also the most lenient when it came to books, letting me stay up past bedtime if I pleaded with him to let me finish a chapter.

In the summer holidays from school, he would often drop me off at the home of his older sister, Akka, because he knew it was one of my favorite places to go — you see, she had a fabulous collection of books. Sitting in her living room in Vile Parle, a suburb of Bombay, the noise of women cooking in the building next door mingling with the drone of the airplanes flying to and from the airport nearby, I discovered Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, and Oliver Goldsmith’s the Vicar of Wakefield, among many, many other new friends. Akka, a portly woman in her 50s with a generous disposition that she hid behind a stern exterior, also had a deep love for trashy romance novels and to my delight she didn’t mind sharing those with me either.

As someone who now writes for a living, I know that my love for writing would never have developed had I not first learned to love to read. Books opened up to me not just new worlds and new cultures, but they helped me more easily navigate the logistics of the language: the grammar, the spelling, the art and the science of putting words together to tell a story.

Recently, Sangita, my childhood pal with whom I spent many a recess dissecting the books of A. J. Cronin and classics like Gone With the Wind, and my new friend and fellow blogger Jaya, both despaired over the abundance of bad writing in our present-day world through their insightful posts.

Both Sangita and Jaya are talented writers themselves and I can understand their frustration over all the bad English floating around, especially on the Internet. And while a good deal of it could be because some people just don’t care how they write, I have a simple solution for anyone who does want to improve: read. It is never too late.

Sure, not each one of us is going to turn into Arundhati Roy after reading a few good books. But on the other hand all great writers are/were readers, admirers and critics of the works of other writers and their contemporaries. Coincidence? Not a chance. Good writing does not happen in isolation: it is a result of thoughtful reading.

Vikram Chandra, an Indian novelist based in Washington, once said to me in an interview that “I cannot imagine not reading…the smell of the book, the anticipation of reading it… I am an addictive reader.” Writing, he said, was pleasurable, but it was work.

As a writer, the most inspiration I have ever drawn is from the work and words of the man I consider the greatest writer of them all– Ernest Hemingway. “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

What makes Hemingway’s writing special is the fact that his prose is unfettered by flowery phrases and sappy emotion– the kind of stuff many of us mistake for good writing. Instead, he uses short sentences and sharp descriptions. His language is direct, vigorous and vibrant and it evokes the most perfect imagery without ever getting indulgent.

To illustrate what I mean, I would like to share the opening lines of The Old Man and the Sea, the first book Desi ever gave me after we met.

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

How great is that?

I’ll leave you with another example of great writing: a six-word short story that Hemingway once wrote and that he is said to have called his best work. It brings tears to my eyes each time I read it, and I wouldn’t say that lightly.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

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  1. says


    It is so true, reading is very important for a writer and key initial step. Thanks for sharing this story. I am getting to know the other sides of you, which is cool.

  2. says

    Vaishali, there are times when you snatch my thoughts and put them down on paper. This is one of them.
    I too started reading at an early age and will never forget the time when I discovered PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie or Alfred Hitchcock (Three Investigators). Lot of people don’t know he wrote this brilliant series.
    My grandfather had a huge collection of books including a lot of Russian lit. I would devour those books in the summer vacations when we visited. Since then I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of books, and it is a pleasure to reread some of my favorites like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Secret Of Santa Vittoria.
    I used to go to Fountain, near Churchgate, and buy books to take back to hostel and read. That is where I found Pearl S Buck’s Good Earth and rediscovered so many others including Fountain Head and Atlas Shrugged.
    I like RK Lakshman for the same reasons you like Hemmingway. A lot of the Indian writers today are so verbose, I wonder if they ever read Lakshman or Hemmingway.
    I have also realized that writing is an art that can be honed and like you said reading is an important part of it. I realize that the more I write and review the better I get.
    Thanks for the compliment. Right back at you. I will check out Sangita’s blog too.
    BTW, watching old Hindi movie songs on You Tube is my guilty pleasure too. :)

  3. says

    A lovely post Vaishali (first time on your blog and first time delurking too – so it really IS a lovely post:))
    I identify so much with the parts about your dad encouraging you to read. My dad also encouraged my (short lived – thank god) attempt at poetry. Once I wanted a word to rhyme with cage (what’s poetry without rhyme eh?) and he ever resourcefully came up with rage! I still have that first poem written down somewhere.
    Oh and my dad is from Karwar too (have I freaked you out yet?)!
    BUT let me get to the burning question – you interviewed Vikram Chandra? I lovvve ‘some’ of his books.

  4. says

    Zengirl: Thanks.

    Jaya, We really do have so much in common– I used to like Ayn Rand in my younger days too although I’ve come a long way since and now have mixed feelings about her. Although I do think the conservatives who hold her up so vigorously don’t quite get her. :)

    Ashwini, thanks for delurking, and that is a coincidence that your dad’s from Karwar too. I met Vikram Chandra when I was working on an assignment for grad school here and the interview appeared in Rediff. It was a while ago but you can read it here:

    Charanya, thanks for drawing my attention to the slip– Narayan is one of my favorite writers and his short story A Horse and Two Goats is perhaps one of my favorite short stories of all time. I was never an admirer of Lakshman, though– I worked for a long time in the TOI building and I guess seeing him around, airs and all, demystified him :) Anyway, he was– I think– an overrated cartoonist, but he did have a long run.

  5. says

    In my earlier comment, I too am guilty of writing Lakshman when I meant Narayan. I was too excited to write after reading your post. I have not read the short story you mentioned but I love his book The Man Eater of Malgudi not to mention Guide. I read his God, Demons and Others recently and it left me seething. But more on that later.

  6. says

    Beautiful post Vaishali. There is a saying in Kannada which goes something like this : ‘Life is wasted if you don’t travel and don’t read books’. So true. Reading is important for everyone irrespective of their profession. Nicely written.

  7. says

    Loved, absolutely loved this post… It was my grandfather who handed me my first sidney sheldon.. he was like “you are anyway going to read it behind my back. let’s not do that… ” and then it was my sister who introduced me to Wodehouse… I am soo thankful to her for that… and then yeah, I guess we all go through this period of worshipping Ayn Rand :) . My latest rage is ponniyn selvan – a tamizh novel by the awesome Kalki… I just finished reading it and I started again :)

    You write so well… I am so horrible that I have stopped attempting :)

  8. says

    Excellent and a superb post, Vaishali!I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post!
    It is hard to find a great writer as a Dickens or a Wodehouse or Ayn Rand these days and yes, to write well, you must have some interest to read as well!The old man and the Sea has to be my fav among Hemingway’s works!
    You write so well…no wonder you make a living out of it!

  9. says

    I’m not just a Voracious Vegan, I’m also a Voracious READER. I cannot exist without at least 2 or 3 books on my bedside table.

    One of the best things about my parents is that when me and my sister were younger and we wanted to buy books, stacks and stacks of books, they would never even dream of saying no. It didn’t matter if I was 10 and lugging around a copy o Anna Karenina, or another book many adults would deem ‘inappropriate’ for a young child, my parents always said YES to any request for any amount of books.

    Now my collection fills my house and I couldn’t be happier. There is nothing more beautiful than a much loved book.

    Lovely post.

  10. says

    It takes me to my childhood, i remember reading Goen with the wind when i was 13 and my friend saying you may no read this book as it is for adult. Ofcourse my mom didn’t allow us to read these book as your dad saying ignore the dirty bits, she says don’t read all those dirty books at all.
    We never got books, always took from library. I only started buying books after getting married.

  11. Roshani says

    Wonderful post! I really enjoy reading, but don’t do it enough! I really enjoy Milan Kundera’s writings and many Russian authors…Currently I am reading The Zahir by Paulo Coelho, not as good as the Alchemist but still interesting!

    So while I am here, here’s an attempt at a short poem.

    Mouthwatering Feast
    For Vaishali

    Whipping up
    Coming up with
    Mouthwatering creations that
    Excite the senses
    Delight the tastebuds &
    Create a feast for the eyes, nose,
    mouth, body, mind & the soul…

  12. says

    Would you believe it if I said to my dad if I can read Harrold Robins? I had exhausted all PGW and many more.He simply said well they are kind of porno, otherwise good Language flow!Anyway to date (He is 77 and me 48) we discuss every book we read.I encourage my daughter to read even if it is crap. Reading is a must to improving language skills.

  13. says

    Lovely post vaishali and so true..i too had started reading in early days not as early as school days but early in college and you could always see me with a book in my hands..recently i have stopped or rather i couldnt find english books here in swiss but for sure after going back i am going to start reading again!

  14. says

    Great post!

    I can’t say I’m the big Hemingway fan that you are. I did read The Sun Also Rises for a class once and I can appreciate the simplistic tone of his writing.

    When it comes to the classics, my devotion goes to Steinbeck! I probably cry each time I read Of Mice and Men. I did read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and enjoyed that as well.

  15. says

    Great post!

    I can’t say I’m the big Hemingway fan that you are. I did read The Sun Also Rises for a class once and I can appreciate the simplistic tone of his writing.

    When it comes to the classics, my devotion goes to Steinbeck! I probably cry each time I read Of Mice and Men. I did read The Good Earth by Pearl Buck and enjoyed that as well.

  16. says

    Hey Vaishali..
    This is my first visit to your lovely blog. very beautifully written …
    I believe reading is an art and as u said,i am thankful to my father ,for implanting that habit in me..
    But some how i lost it,during my post graduation days,by getting exposed to too much of business and strategy..and now i m slowly getting into the rythm of reading again,with my new role of being a house wife.My husband makes it a point now that he get me a new book every week ,from Barnes and nobles :)
    Happy to have found ur blog!!!

  17. says

    Thanks for this post – someone had to say it. Read.

    My birthday gifts were also books and I was thrilled to see my niece going the same way. My daughter is also going the same way as far as I can see. Books open up your imagination, widen your horizons and enrich your life. Read I say.


  18. hetal says

    I am a long time reader of your blog but delurking for the first time. I have tried couple of your recipes. MY husband is an avid reader. Myself – moderate one. BUt i am trying to read more to set an example to my son. The problem with today’s kids is that they don’t read enough – I mean for pleasure. They get too distracted with tv, video games etc. so reading is one habit we are trying to develop in our kids. My husband says – “the fire my dad lit when i was 5 years old is still burning” – the love for reading he instilled in his son is still blooming.

    beautiful post and write !

  19. says

    Hey Vaishali, neat post!

    Sigh. Enid Blyton, Wodehouse and A.J. Cronin, school times were great!

    Thank you much, for linking my blog and for the compliment,(at the risk of sounding like a mutual admiration society, likewise.)

    I agree with you about reading…it’s the foolproof way to better writing. And have you noticed, how a lack of reading is easily visible in bad writing?

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