Samrat Upadhyay’s new novel – Buddha’s Orphans – is atypical to his earlier books. This isn’t because his novel is as good as his earlier three books but rather because it’s a book that, thanks to criticism, doesn’t have excessive sex.
Upadhyay had announced that his forthcoming (this) book would be “something different,” and he has lived by his words.
Buddha’s Orphans has a kind of aesthetics in it that satisfies literary hunger despite being a long book with its events stretching over a long period – four generations of characters, to be precise.
Raja, the protagonist, and Nilu, the girl he is fated to love and marry, not only provide two contrasting characterization, but the author has also tried to explore, through them, the meaning, boundary and values of various types of relationships, and their contrasting relationships with their families.
Despite being thrown away, Raja feels constantly connected to the unknown mother and tries to envision the ideals of motherly love within the love he finds from women – his foster mothers – one of whom is a poor street vendor, and the other an affluent childless woman with a mental illness, as well as his wife and his mistress.
Nilu, a daughter of privilege who has lost her father, creates a strong bond with Raja, the son of the serving woman, while detesting the relationship with her mother.
The story begins in a fascinating way: how a beggar discovers a newborn infant and how a street vendor, Kaki, becomes his foster mother. The descriptive beginning of the novel gives a perfect idea of what the city of Kathmandu looked like a few decades ago. In addition, the author, who directs the MFA program at Indiana University and teaches creative writing there, has done a masterful work to keep readers interested in what can be the most boring section of any novel – the setting.
Kaki’s love for the child forces her to work for an affluent family that promises her child a better education but runs away for she feels like the child is being snatched away from her. Her new job, in a rich family, lets the protagonist meet the woman of his destiny. Raja is then kidnapped, and Kaki is unable to get him back as the family bribes a hospital official to make papers to claim the child as their baby.
As destiny would have it, Raja and Nilu meet, fall in love and run away from their families to live in a rented room. Whereas Raja continues to search for the meaning of life and love, Nilu holds the family together with her job. The happiness brought by the birth of their son, and the grief brought by his demise, along with their mid-marriage crisis due to their inability to accept each other in the way they are, creates a void in their life; and they look for “alternative love” as Raja lives with a mistress, and Nilu tries a relationship with a
Upadhyay ensures that they keep together, for their necessity and love, and that her second child, a girl, keeps them tied. The girl’s travel to the US and her return, impregnated by a man she had no serious relationship with, and her acceptance into the family, completes the novel in a happy note – just as what readers like.
The bare storyline doesn’t, however, indicate the beauty of the book’s woven words, together with the political, social and historical backgrounds of Nepal giving a tasteful reading that keeps readers stuck to it. No story is great; the greatness of literature lies in the mastery of words to weave the presentation of the story; and in Buddha’s Orphans, Upadhyay indicates he knows it better than any other Nepali writer.
The novel could pass off as a feministic writing, as Nilu has more protagonistic characteristics than the central character of Raja.
Upadhyay was criticized, mainly in Nepal, for his overly sexual and sometimes unrealistic portrayals of Nepali society in his stories in Arresting God in Kathmandu (2001), the novel The Guru of Love (2003), and the collection of short fiction in The Royal Ghosts (2006). But in Buddha’s Orphans, he has neither used excessive sex nor has portrayed the society unrealistically.
The novel justifies the San Francisco Chronicle’s praise for Upadhyay – “a Buddhist Chekhov...with a sense of cyclical nature of life and its passion and that makes Buddha’s Orphans an absolute must-read from an author who has strode forward to redefining Nepal to the world by the means of words.”