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Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay

Buddha's Orphans (original 2010; edition 2010)

by Samrat Upadhyay

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559326,854 (3.96)20
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.
Title:Buddha's Orphans
Authors:Samrat Upadhyay
Info:Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 448 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:Fiction, Psychological fiction, Nepal, Orphans

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Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay (2010)



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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
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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