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Buddha's Orphans

by Samrat Upadhyay
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publishing date: 14/07/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780618517503
  • ISBN: 0618517502


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)

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  • Romantic Saga
    From Amazon

    The love story of Raja and Nilu begins when they are children and resumes in their teen years, with the political upheavals in Nepal as background. Raja was abandoned by his mother when she committed suicide, and, although he was lovingly raised, the wound will last his lifetime. It's a gripping love story, but then their little son dies tragically, and the marriage seems to be falling apart. Will Raja and Nilu survive this terrible time? Will their marriage survive? Will Raja ever come to grips with the loss of his birth mother? And what was her story? Will we ever learn more about it? Well, I won't tell you, you'll just have to read the book. There's more, too. More romantic adventures, crises, a new generation. Author Samrat Upadhyay writes an entertaining story, populated with endearing and fascinating characters--even the bad ones. And, although my knowledge of Nepal is minimal, he drew me into his nation's story as well. A society under strain, its cultural traditions beginning to crumble. A younger generation is impatient with arranged marriages and subordination of women, while the parents try to maintain traditional norms. A great book, but too much. Too many love stories. More than a romance novel, it tries to be a mutli-generational saga, but isn't quite. About a third of the way through, the book began to drag. I didn't want to meet any more characters or live through any more tragic events. Then the book ended abruptly, almost as though the author ran out of paper. Still, I can recommend this book and will look forward to more of Upadhyay's work. One suggestion for the next one--give us a short glossary. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.

  • A family saga
    From Amazon

    Topping 400 pages, this novel is the saga of a family created from the forbidden love between Nilu, who is fairly wealthy, and the orphaned Raja who was raised by a servant and then by a rich man and his unstable wife. The novel addresses themes of the echoing impact of the caste system, repetition of patterns through generations, and the survival of connections after death. There were times when I had mixed feelings about the novel and wasn't quite sure whether to rate it three or four stars. Ultimately the quality of the writing and the fact that it kept me riveted, even when I found myself annoyed with it, rated four stars. The writing is spectacular. It vividly brings to life Nepalese culture. The love story between Raja and Nilu is engaging. At several points during the novel the behavior of some of the characters becomes very, well, uncharacteristic. This happens, for the most part, around tragedy that occurs, but I found the reactions strange at times. There is then a fairly large jump in time which results in the feeling that part of the story has been untold. Salient points of Nepalese history are visited throughout the novel; however, they are inserted in a somewhat awkward way and with a couple of exceptions, we never really see how these events impact the characters we've come to care about. Past generations become connected to present in a way that is very spiritual, almost supernatural. This may put off some readers who appreciate a more logical, linear storyline, but I felt the author pulled it off well and it lent an element of an almost magical feeling to the story, tying everything together. The final segment of the novel has an urgently suspenseful feeling to it, drawing it to a satisfying conclusion. In summary, there are some bumps in the road here, but the love story, gorgeous writing, and fascinating glimpses into Nepalese culture make this a very worthwhile read.

  • Like Tolstoy but without what makes Tolstoy Tolstoy.
    From Amazon

    It's a good story. It feels a bit contrived, like someone who has read classics is trying to emulate them; trying to come up with a book that we readers can analyze and find symbolism and irony and whatever else. The comments on the back cover compare the author to Russian authors, and there is some similarity in the slow, detailed descriptions of fairly common life situations, with an undertone of supernatural intervention. But Tolstoy has profound characterizations. Dostoevsky offers philosophies that are epiphanies. This author has neither... his characters are likable, and his philosophies are nothing out-of-the-ordinary. But it is a good story. Nice. Raja is an orphan who grows up, gets married, has kids of his own, faces various personal tragedies, learns about his own history, and in a way his own present life repeats and heals the past. Nilu comes from a broken home, and she, too, uses the present to repair the past. I enjoyed learning more about Nepali culture. The relationship between the two main characters was warm; it created a sensitivity and familiarity about a culture that is not so familiar to us all. An issue of personal taste: I don't want to be so intimately involved in the sex lives of the characters I read about. This book uses the word "penis" as often as any medical manual. Yikes.

  • Love and unrest in Nepal
    From Amazon

    I liked this book very much. The writing was exceptionally good. The one fault I found was the idea of a man still missing his mother, who killed herself when he was a baby. He was not happy with his surrogate mothers. I found Raja to be an unlikeable character. As a child, he is mothered by the daughter of the wealthy woman his adoptive mother works for. He spends almost his whole life thinking of how he was orphaned. Most women wouldn't put up with this attitude but Nilu, his wife, seems to thrive on babying him. She consistently makes excuses for his childishness. After their son dies at an early age, they separate and live single lives for a year. They both have someone to fill their lives during this time. They reunite and have another child, a daughter. Her childhood years pass in a few pages of the book and she goes off to America to study. She disappears and the end of the book explains what happened to her and all their lives after that event.

  • A modern Nepalese love story with all its joys and tragedies through several generations
    From Amazon

    Set in the author's native Nepal, and spanning several generations, this fast paced story kept me fascinated and I found the book hard to put down. It introduced me to a culture I knew little about and developed the characters is such detail that I was able to identify with them and feel their emotions as well as constantly wondering what would happen next. Basically, this is a love story between Raja, orphaned at birth and later forcibly adopted by a wealthy man and his mentally unstable wife, and Nilu an upper class girl who first met Raja when the woman who saved Raja's life as an infant was a servant in her home. This is their story, a story that moves swiftly with never a dull moment as it chronicles the couple's romance and their subsequent joys and tragedies through several generations. Underlying this is a tale of how the past influences the future and how mothers and children are connected by forces beyond their control. The story is joyful as well as sad and I felt I got to know the couple personally though the author's use of the details of their lives, not shying away from vivid descriptions of their personal romantic life. However, I did find a couple of problems with the book. One was that there were just too many coincidences to make the story real. Another was that it uses Nepalese political upheavals as a background but never fully explains them in enough detail to teach me anything. That said, these were just light distractions and never stopped my avid page turning or my enjoyment of this well written and fascinating story.

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