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.”