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Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay

Buddha's Orphans (2010)

by Samrat Upadhyay

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I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I am, however, surprised by some of the blurbs found on the cover:

...deserving of his acclaim as a Buddhist Chekhov...
...the sweep and romantic grandeur of a great old-fashioned Russian novel...

I didn't have any sense whatsoever of Checkhov's modernist style in this nor would the word grandeur have come to mind. I'm not sure why there is this urge to make this into a Russian novel when it works perfectly well as a Nepalese one.

At its heart this is a love story between Nilu and Raja — a life-long but perfectly ordinary one insofar as such can occur across class/economic boundaries (I would disregard the "epic love" hyperbole on the cover as well) — but it also reaches both backwards a generation and forwards a generation to show strong parallels in the lives of their parents and children. However, the love story is just the vehicle for several ideas that seemed woven through the story.

I know very little about Buddhist philosophy but the consciously cyclical nature of this story seems very apropos for a tale that never steps very far from the culture of the Indian subcontinent. I took away the message that, however much the specifics of misfortune or adversity may seem unique to those encountering them, the fundamental experience has been repeated many times and how you meet the trial is part of what shapes the ultimate outcome. Further, those actions we take cause ripples out through the lives of others across time and geography in a general connectedness that we may not always perceive.

I found the women, by far, the most interesting characters. The arc from Mohini to Nilu to Ranjana to Kali, although not told chronologically, was the most powerful, both in terms of characterization and the underlying ideas. The men in the story, while as colorful and alive, are weaker people and their presence doesn't loom as large. Part of this is that cultural misogyny plays such an important role and the women's reactions — be it acceptance or struggle — form so much of the fabric of the story that it's hard not to see their roles as the backbone.

For me, Upadhyay is a quiet writer. By that I mean that I wasn't conscious of his presence all the time. His characters were living and breathing and, generally, all I could hear was their story. They are, by turns, humorous, sad, encouraging and heartbreaking but they are always engaging. Where this fell short occasionally was in the backdrop. It takes place from the 1960s to the present, a very tumultuous time politically in Nepal, and Upadhyay seems determined to insert a note of each political shift...even when it didn't seem to have that much relevance to his foreground story and felt somewhat bolted on.

I really enjoyed this book, especially the second half, becoming more engrossed as it went along. I can see why Upadhyay's other works have won awards and look forward to trying them someday.

Recommended. ( )
1 vote TadAD | Jan 20, 2015 |
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was captivating and engaging...very hard to put it down. I'd highly recommend it for anyone interested in the culture, relationships, or the history of Nepal. ( )
  pdirvin | Jan 16, 2012 |
Raja and Nilu are both orphans. Raja was abandoned as an infant just before his mother drowned herself, and Nilu was being brought up by a single mother who was often lost in the haze of alcohol and drugs. As children the two meet, he as the adopted son of a servant, and she as the daughter of the mistress of the house. It's an odd little relationship for the playmates at first, and Nilu begins to teach her little friend how to read. Theirs will be an epic love.

Set in Nepal during the later half of the 20th century, [Buddha's Orphans] is a tale of epic love—or perhaps an epic tale of a love that reaches across decades, caste, and anything else which might stand in its way. While reading it, Pasternak's [Doctor Zhivago] came to mind more than a few times, and while this novel doesn't reach the intensity of the classic, it certainly makes a brave attempt. His characters are superb, his stories—their stories—are set against the upheavals of Kathmandu as Nepal transforms itself from Monarchy to Democracy. The background-foreground connection doesn't work quite as well as it was probably intended, but I would not call it a failure as one is certainly transported to Nepal (and what do most of us know of Nepal?)

We've all read epic stories of love, set against war or other turmoil, but the most unusual thing about this epic love story is the very distinctive cyclical sense of it. Upadhyay has woven multiple stories in a way that suggests underpinnings of Hindu philosophy - that time is eternal and cyclical, a neverending cycle of birth, death, rebirth. This cyclical sense to the story was what really stayed with me after I had finished reading the book and perhaps it is this that gives the love story it's monumental feel.

*I also loved the author's previous novel, The Guru of Love. ( )
2 vote avaland | Oct 3, 2010 |
In his new novel, Buddha's Orphans, Samrat Upadhyay attempts a very ambitious literary canvas. He sets out to portray nothing less than the full social and emotional history of modern urban Nepal through the lives of two residents of Katmandu. The novel revolves around the story of Raja and Nilu, two orphans who become friends as children and later fall in love and marry. Raja is a boy abandoned as an infant and raised by an odd succession of surrogate mothers. Nilu is technically an orphan: she loses her father at a young age and must parent herself as a result of her mother's chronic alcoholism. The book covers the period from 1962 to the present day—the last half century of Nepalese history. Through the lives of these two main characters, the author gives his readers the opportunity to experience the social, political, and emotional history of Nepal during an unprecedented period of social upheaval. The changes that take place in the lives of these characters mirror the upheavals that Nepal experiences adapting to the modern world.

Nepal is therefore another character in this novel—an orphan on the world's stage. Raja, Nilu and Nepal, these are the three orphans under the umbrella of the novel's exotic title. "Buddha's Orphans" is a realistic and understated love story, but much more, it is a determined thematic and historical tour de force that succeeds admirably.

The novel has a classic structure. There are two books, each with three parts. They develop like interconnected three-act plays. The first book takes up more than three quarters of the text and covers Raja from his infancy through his young adulthood. During this first book, we observe Raja as he careens through life—from a physically deprived and needy infant, on to a psychologically damaged and detached child, then on to a seething rebellious adolescence, and finally into a muddled young adulthood. In this first book, Raja is portrayed as a disagreeable and unlikable main character. On the other hand, Nilu quickly earns the reader's care and devotion. It is her story that compels the reader to finish the first part of the book. The first book is also enhanced by a wide cast of fascinating secondary characters.

The second book covers Raja and Nilu during their mature years. We learn that Raja has changed. He has come to terms with the demons that haunted his earlier life. He has developed into an admirable, successful, modern, and psychologically intact man. Finally, there is balance and stability in Raja and Nilu's lives.

The book is a very realistic slice of Nepalese life. The writing is outstanding. The emphasis is on storytelling and character development. There is nothing particularly outlandish or thrilling about the plot. These are everyday Nepalese people trying to adapt to a chaotic period of change.

This book is probably too subtle and literary to have wide popular appeal, but I recommend it highly to all readers who are interested in contemporary world literature. I look forward to more books by this talented author. ( )
1 vote msbaba | Aug 24, 2010 |
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Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before the Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north…
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Product Description
Called "a Buddhist Chekhov" by the San Francisco Chronicle, Samrat Upadhyay's writing has been praised by Amitav Ghosh and Suketu Mehta, and compared with the work of Akhil Sharma and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Upadhyay's new novel, Buddha's Orphans, uses Nepal's political upheavals of the past century as a backdrop to the story of an orphan boy, Raja, and the girl he is fated to love, Nilu, a daughter of privilege.Their love story scandalizes both families and takes readers through time and across the globe, through the loss of and search for children, and through several generations, hinting that perhaps old bends can, in fact, be righted in future branches of a family tree.

Buddha's Orphans is a novel permeated with the sense of how we are irreparably connected to the mothers who birthed us and of the way events of the past, even those we are ignorant of, inevitably haunt the present. But most of all it is an engrossing, unconventional love story and a seductive and transporting read.

A Q&A with Samrat Upadhyay, Author of Buddha's Orphans

Q: Buddha's Orphans feels like a very different novel from your first one, The Guru of Love, in terms of both its structure and its subject matter. What motivated you to write this book?

A: The Guru of Love had been a strictly chronological affair, with a plot structure that was linear and uncomplicated, and with three characters around which the story revolved. It was the perfect tale for a first-time novelist. But for my second novel I wanted something more challenging, something that'd use the capacity of the novel form to stretch our conventional notions of time, especially in relation to Nepali history. In retrospect, it seems that I wanted to demonstrate that our lives are intertwined with lives from the past, that "life repeats itself," if you will. Buddha's Orphans covers half a century of Nepali history, with characters across generations whose lives are intertwined in inexplicable ways.

Q: Is Buddha's Orphans your most complex work?

A: It certainly felt that way when I finished writing it. This novel is the most challenging work that I've done, in terms of subject matter and narrative structure. The first draft was close to eight hundred pages! And I was completely exhausted by the end of it, so much so that I thought I'd not write for another year or two. It turned out I couldn't stay away for more than a couple of months.

Q: The love affair between Raja and Nilu is moving and has the feel of spanning generations. Could you talk about these two protagonists?

A: The character of Raja appeared to me well before I started writing, and the novel's opening, showing baby Raja abandoned in the park, was also firmly entrenched in my mind months before I began. But what turned out to be truly delightful was the dominant role the character of Nilu assumed by the first quarter of the novel. This was very much unplanned (I work without plot outlines), but to me it made the novel, and in the end the book turned out to be as much about Nilu as about Raja. This pattern of a female character exerting her influence on events had also occurred in The Guru of Love, where Goma's challenge to her husband, Ramchandra, galvanizes the story. In Buddha's Orphans, too, Nilu takes charge early on, and it's her reaction to the events in her and Raja's lives, her intuition about how Raja's unknown past was haunting their present, including their daughter's, that gives the novel its power.

Q: The hippie period of the 1960s and 1970s in Nepal features prominently in the novel. Why did you choose those decades?

A: Those were the years when Nepal began fully opening up to the outside world. I remember as a child walking with my mother down a popular Kathmandu street--I couldn't have been more than five or six then--and watching two dreadlocked hippies French-kissing as they crossed the road at a snail's pace. In a politically and culturally conservative society, that was quite a sight, and my mother was visibly embarrassed. The government was everywhere, on the billboards in Kathmandu and on Radio Nepal, which paid homage to the king and the one-party Panchayat system, it seemed, every hour. I also remember walking with my parents and my sister, and people commenting on how our nuclear family matched the family planning slogan of those years: "We two, our two."

Q: As a Nepali writer living in the West, do you feel that you have an obligation or a responsibility to tackle major issues of your home country?

A: I don't feel compelled to be the representative writer of my home country for the West. The major impetus for my writing is to try to tell a good story, to keep my readers engaged with my characters and the story's happenings, and to make them feel, by the end, that they have caught glimpses into human nature. In the process, however, I do end up interrogating certain aspects of the society--for example, the image of Nepali propriety. There's a tendency in our society to sweep under the rug all those things that we don't want to admit exist. We blame the West for its corrupting influences on our culture, as though there's one solid Nepali culture, pure and pristine, that we need to cling to. I use my writer's license to peek into my characters' bedrooms, and I discover interesting things that in public are kept under wraps. In Buddha's Orphans, Nilu's defiance of her male-dominated society is one way in which the novel challenges established thinking.

Q: There's a short section in Buddha's Orphans where Nilu's daughter Ranjana spends some time in America. Does this signal a change--will you be using your adopted country more as a setting for your writing?

A: That's certainly possible. I am finding that I'm increasingly more interested in a kind of a cross-cultural analysis in my work, although I doubt whether I'll end up writing a work of immigrant fiction any time soon. There's still so much to write about Nepal that I feel that I have just begun.

(Photo © Daniel Pickett Photography)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:46 -0400)

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Raja and Nilu are fated to fall in love. Follow their story across the globe and through generations to see if, perhaps, old bends in a family tree may be righted in future branches.

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