Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Laughter of Eggs?

ADIBAH AMIN takes a look at the fancifulness and quaintness of collective nouns, both the English and Malay varieties

FOREIGN STUDENTS of Malay are charmed, tickled and exasperated by the penjodoh bilangan—literally “number matchers”—that come between a number and the object it “numbers.”

“Why oh why,” they sigh, “must you say a fruit of table when you mean table?” Come to think of it, that is what I have been saying all my life: a fruit of table, house, ship; two trunks of pencil, three legs of umbrella, four seeds of coconut.

The English have these too, as in a length of rope, two loaves of bread, three sheets of paper, four heads of cattle, etc., but the English know where to stop.

Not so the Malays. Everything under the sun must be number-matched—not a man but a person of man; not a mouse but a tail of mouse. Scholars even argued about what to use for hantus (ghosts): a person of hantu or a tail of hantu. Finally it was left open, to be decided by the appearance and character of the hantu concerned. Only abstract nouns escape number-matching, taking the simple suatu meaning “a,” but even here some people insist on saying a fruit of idea rather than just an idea.

Most of us take the number matchers for granted in Malay. But translate some of them into English and we are struck by their strangeness and wonder how on earth they came to be thought of.

You can see the point about using person for human beings, tail for animals, trunk for long hard object, sheet for thin flat objects, even seed for fruit. A book of bread seems apt enough, and so is a formation of ring. But a shoot of letter? Can it be because letters of old were scrolls and when rolled up looked like banana shoots? Shoot is used for guns too, sepucuk senapang, but the pun works only in English because the Malay word for shoot in the sense of fire a gun is entirely different: tembak. And serawan jala, “a sadness of fishing net,” is enough to give you a guilt complex over the plight of fishermen or the fate of fish depending on your point of view.

What a quaint language, what fanciful people, murmur my foreign friends. Ah, but last week an Englishman I know, a physiologist with philological leanings, gave me Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1970), saying I might find it amusing to look at the section on sports technicalities.

I did, and did I! In that section, under “group terms: nouns of assemblage and company,” I came across a wealth of collective nouns I never dreamt existed in the English language.

At school I only learnt a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, a swarm of bees and other pedestrian stuff. A school of fish fetched a giggle or two, and that was that. Why could I not have had a teacher with a sporting background to teach me gorgeous things like: a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a charm of hummingbirds, an army of frogs? And to think that I have used English for three decades without suspecting it contains gems like a business of ferrets and a skulk of foxes.

How eagerly I learn up the terms now, noting particularly that (tame) cats are a cluster and (young) cats are a kindle. What about wild old cats, you may ask. Ah, well, they are probably lone hunters. It is interesting to learn too that while cattle is a drove or a herd just like Teacher said, in Australian it is a mob.

What larks—an exaltation of larks—I am going to have using the language from now on, especially as the book also lists suggested collective nouns for modern times on the lines of particularly imaginative medieval terms like a rascal of boys, a gaggle of gossips, a hastiness of cooks and a laughter of eggs (perhaps the result of hasty cooking?).

My favourites among the suggestions are a dampness of babies, a bareness of bathers, and a corpulence of councillors.

Perhaps in the next edition of Usage and Abusage, Partridge will consider including some Malaysian suggestions—say, a tergendala of television evenings, a rojak of road repairs?

Reproduced from As I Was Passing II, by Adibah Amin (MPH Publishing)

Monday, January 07, 2013

January 2013 Highlights

1. The Friday Gospels (Sceptre, 2013) / Jenn Ashworth
2. The Voyage (MacLehose Press, 2013) / Murray Bail
3. Never Saw It Coming (Orion, 2013) / Linwood Barclay
4. Rubbernecker (Bantam Press, 2013) / Belinda Bauer
5. A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint Press, 2013) / Karen E. Bender
6. Chamber Music (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Tom Benn
7. Scent of Darkness (Pantheon, 2013) / Margot Berwin
8. Unexpected Lessons in Love (John Murray, 2013) / Bernadine Bishop
9. Speaking From Among the Bones (Delacorte Press, 2013) / Alan Bradley
10. The Painted Girls (Riverhead, 2013) / Cathy Marie Buchanan

11. The Last Runaway (Dutton, 2013) / Tracy Chevalier
12. The Last Quarter of the Moon (trans. from the Chinese by Bruce Humes) (Harvill Secker, 2013) / Chi Zijian
13. The Investigation (trans. from the French by Daniel Hahn) (MacLehose Press, 2013) / Philippe Claudel
14. The Wrath of Angels (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013) / John Connolly
15. This Is the Way (Fourth Estate, 2013) / Gavin Corbett
16. Jack of Diamonds (Viking, 2013) / Bryce Courtenay
17. The Best of Youth (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Michael Dahlie
18. His Wife Leaves Him (Fantagraphics, 2013) / Stephen Dixon
19. Adam in Eden (trans. from the Spanish by Ethan Shaskan Bumas) (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013) / Carlos Fuentes
20. The River Swimmer (Grove Press, 2013) / Jim Harrison

21. Good Bait (Arrow/Pegasus, 2013) / John Harvey
22. Scenes from Early Life (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Philip Hensher
23. The Engagement (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Chloe Hooper
24. The Uninvited (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Liz Jensen
25. The Illicit Happiness of Other People (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Manu Joseph
26. The Tell (Harper Perennial, 2013) / Hester Kaplan
27. The Burning Air (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) / Erin Kelly
28. The Prophet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) / Michael Koryta
29. K (trans. from the Portuguese by Sue Branford) (Latin America Bureau, 2013) / Bernardo Kucinski
30. The Good House (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) / Ann Leary

31. The Sweet Girl (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Annabel Lyon
32. Little Wolves (Soho Press, 2013) / Thomas Maltman
33. The Chess Men (Quercus, 2013) / Peter May
34. White Dog Fell From the Sky (Viking, 2013) / Eleanor Morse
35. Illumination (HarperCollins, 2013) / Matthew Plampin
36. The Imposter Bride (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) / Nancy Richler
37. Belomor (Text Publishing, 2013) / Nicolas Rothwell
38. First Novel (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Nicholas Royle
39. The Way of the Dog (Coffee House Press, 2013) / Sam Savage
40. Umbrella (Grove Press, 2013) / Will Self

41. Honour (Penguin, 2013) / Elif Shafak
42. The Silence and the Roar (trans. from the Arabic by Max Weiss) (Pushkin Press, 2013) / Nihad Sirees
43. The Tin Horse (Random House, 2013) / Janice Steinberg
44. The History of Us (Touchstone, 2013) / Leah Stewart
45. Light Shining in the Forest (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013) / Paul Torday
46. Habits of the House (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) / Fay Weldon
47. The Start of Everything (Delacorte Press, 2013) / Emily Winslow

First Novels
1. Hikikomori and the Rental Sister (Algonquin Books, 2013) / Jeff Backhaus
2. The Drowning House (Nan A. Talese, 2013) / Elizabeth Black
3. Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love (Picador/Penguin, 2013) / Sarah Butler
4. How to be a Good Wife (Picador, 2013) / Emma Chapman
5. The Starboard Sea (Corsair, 2013) / Amber Dermont
6. The Universe Versus Alex Woods (Hodder & Stoughton, 2013) / Gavin Extence
7. The Taste of Apple Seeds (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Katharina Hagena
8. Penelope (Virago, 2013) / Rebecca Harrington
9. Clay (Bloomsbury, 2013) / Melissa Harrison
10. The Engagement (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / Chloe Hooper

11. Intermission (William Heinemann, 2013) / Owen Martell
12. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Hutchinson, 2013) / Ayana Mathis
13. Cover of Snow (Ballantine Books, 2013) / Jenny Milchman
14. A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead, 2013) / Dina Nayeri
15. The Death of Bees (Harper, 2013) / Lisa O’Donnell
16. The Man from Primrose Lane (Corsair, 2013) / James Renner
17. The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland, 2013) / Donal Ryan
18. The Rosie Project (Text Publishing, 2013) / Graeme Simsion
19. Little Known Facts (Bloomsbury UK, 2013) / Christine Sneed
20. The Midwife’s Tale (Minotaur Books, 2013) / Sam Thomas

21. Ashenden (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Elizabeth Wilhide
22. The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Jack Wolf

1. A History of the Present Illness (Bloomsbury USA, 2013) / Louise Aronson
2. Something Like Happy (Jonathan Cape, 2013) / John Burnside
3. What You Are Now Enjoying (Autumn House Press, 2013) / Sarah Gerkensmeyer
4. The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead, 2013) / Manuel Gonzales
5. News from Heaven: The Bakerton Stories (Harper, 2013) / Jennifer Haigh
6. The Beautiful Indifference (Harper Perennial, 2013) / Sarah Hall
7. National Treasures (Vintage, 2013) / Charles McLeod
8. There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself (trans. from the Russian by Anna Summers) (Penguin Books, 2013) / Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
9. Revenge (trans. from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder) (Picador USA/Harvill Secker, 2013) / Yoko Ogawa
10. The Gurkha’s Daughter (Quertcus, 2013) / Prajwal Parajuly

11. Tenth of December (Random House/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013) / George Saunders
12. Spectacle (Graywolf Press, 2013) / Susan Steinberg
13. Letter from an Unknown Woman (trans. from the German by Anthea Bell) (Pushkin Press, 2013) / Stefan Zweig

1. Quick Question (Carcanet Press, 2013) / John Ashbery
2. Maiden Names (Arlen House, 2013) / Martin Dyar
3. The Oracle of Hollywood Boulevard (W.W. Norton, 2013) / Dana Goodyear
4. Go Giants  (Faber & Faber, 2013) / Nick Laird
5. Chick (Bloodaxe Books, 2013) / Hannah Lowe
6. A Raft of Grief (Autumn House Press, 2013) / Chelsea Rathburn
6. Bad Machine (Bloodaxe, 2013) / George Szirtes
1. The Last Days of Detroit (Bodley Head, 2013) / Mark Binelli
2. Family Secrets: Living With Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day (Viking, 2013) / Deborah Cohen
3. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War (Oxford Univerty Press, 2013) / Deirdre David
4. Alone in America: The Stories That Matter (Harvard University Press, 2013) / Robert A. Ferguson
5. The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (Chatto & Windus, 2013) / Stephen Grosz
6. Sorry!: The English and Their Manners (John Murray, 2013) / Henry Hitchings
7. The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio: Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War (Fourth Estate, 2013) / Lucy Hughes-Hallett
8. Georgette Heyer (Sourcebooks, 2013) / Jennifer Kloester
9. Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death: Reflections on Memory and Imagination (trans. by Ralph Mandel) (Allen Lane, 2013) / Otto Dov Kulka
10. A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza (Eland Publishing, 2013) / Dervla Murphy

11. The Atlantic Ocean: Reports from Britain and America (Mariner Books, 2013) / Andrew O’Hagan
12. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) / Adam Phillips
13. American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) / Carl Rollyson
14. The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (Verso Books, 2013) / Shlomo Sand
15. Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found (Atlantic Books, 2013) / Cheryl Strayed
16. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013) / Andrea Stuart
17. Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction (Random House, 2013) / Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd
18. The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (Bodley Head, 2013) / Carl Watkins 19. Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti (Simon & Schuster, 2013) / Amy Wilentz

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

On Loss and Legacies

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH talks to London-based Malaysian novelist SUNIL NAIR, whose first attempt at the novel is a compelling story set against the changing landscape of contemporary Malaysia

“IF YOU STRIP AWAY all the ‘lights and decorations’ of a life, what are you left with that are legacies from your parents; what have you really inherited from them?” In his début novel, When All the Lights Are Stripped Away, Malaysian author Sunil Nair attempts to find the answer to this question.

The novel centres on Anil who returns to Malaysia when he receives an airmail from his father that contains just six words: “Come home. I am dying. Acha”. He leaves behind his carefully constructed city life to go back to Muar, his sleepy hometown in Johor. This physical voyage leads to a deeper, intangible journey when he discovers his father’s ambitious political dreams for him and his mother’s secret love of painting.

Parts of the novel reflect the author’s own life. Like Anil, Nair grew up in Muar and lost his father as a boy but the similarities stop there. “The book started off as a short story of a young man and his father on a rubber plantation. Then it morphed into one about this young man visiting his dying father on a rubber plantation,” says Nair. “My father worked on a rubber plantation and he died of cancer when I was 14. I thought it was too autobiographical in its elements so I slowly began thinking about how to construct this as a longer story, perhaps a novella or even a novel if it had legs, while keeping the central story of a relationship between a son and his father.”

Nair himself was lucky to enjoy a happy childhood despite the lack of wealth. The tenth of eleven children, he remembers a carefree time playing with his siblings and neighbours or meandering through the secondary forests close to his home. Even after the passing of his father, he recalls that the family could rely on the solid support of his resilient mother. “Our family was not well off but my mother kept us together both financially and emotionally, and made sure we were well educated.” Nair, who now resides in London, credits his mother’s emphasis on education as the reason behind his double degrees in physics and mathematics from the University of Chicago and his doctorate degree in mathematics from the State University of New York.

Although it might seem unusual for a highly trained physicist and mathematician to spend his free time writing literary novels, Nair himself isn’t so surprised. “I owe a very large part of what I know and how I think to my time at the University of Chicago,” he says. “It’s a liberal arts university, one that encourages students to get a very broad education and to learn from original sources. I did not concentrate on my major until my third year and took many interesting courses, including a graduate class on Nietzsche and Freud, conducted in German and English! My deep interest in literature and art was cultivated during this period.”

When he’s not moonlighting as a novelist, Nair works as a publisher of mathematics, statistics, physics and computer science books for Taylor & Francis, one of the big four academic publishers in London. “I would have liked to say I wake up like millions of other Londoners and start my daily commute, but fortunately or unfortunately, that is not the case,” explains the author. “I started working from home four days of the week in October 2011, commuting to the office near Oxford a day a week. My wife works at home, too, which is great; otherwise, working at home can get very lonely. I tend to wake up early, spend some time with myself and then get to work.”

Working from home might sound like a dream come true for a novelist but Nair would disagree. Supervising a group of eleven editors, who live all around the world, is by no means a straightforward task. “My editors keep me on my toes—they live from the west coast of the United States to Delhi, and until recently Singapore, too, which spans 15 time zones. It’s a tricky time for publishers everywhere. Electronic publishing brings countless challenges and some opportunities, so you need to be flexible and light on your feet.”

The demands of Nair’s day job keep him busy, which means he doesn’t have much time to write. It took him eight long years to complete When All the Lights Are Stripped Away. “With a very busy day job, it really took forever. I had to steal minutes and hours here and there to write and that is never ideal,” he explains. “I never really had a schedule as such but I can say that most of my best writing took place first thing in the morning because I am a morning person. Sometimes I did not even look at the manuscript for months and when I came back to writing, it was almost like starting from scratch every time.” He admits that his motivation waned from time to time: “Perhaps I was a bit too lazy or did not see this as a publish-or-perish situation. But I persevered. When I got to about 50,000 words, I knew I owed it to myself to finish the book. It finally happened at the end of 2009.” (The novel was published by Marshall Cavendish in March 2012.)

Nair reveals that there is definitely another novel in his future but is a bit vague about the details. “I won’t say any more than this: the novel is set in London and is a literary comedy, or that is the plan at the moment. I have many ideas for novels and may abandon this one for something more serious if it doesn’t work.”

As for When All the Lights Are Stripped Away, Nair hopes readers will reexamine their ideas about legacy, inheritance and art and search for deeper understanding as these are important and often complicated aspects of life. “Legacies and inheritance are complex and intricate and art is powerful even when conducted in the most private and limited of circumstances.”

Reproduced from the April-June 2013 issue of Quill magazine