Buddha’s Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay
First off, Samrat Upadhyay is one of my favorite short story-tellers. His debut Arresting God in Kathmandu remains one of the most memorable collections I’ve ever read, and a quote from the review I wrote for Christian Science Monitor about his most recent collection, The Royal Ghosts, actually appears on the back cover of this, his latest novel. [What a surprise that was to find!]
Last week, my book group hens (my mother likes to refer to my book clubbing in humorous onomatopoeic Korean as ‘gathering in the chicken coop’) came over to discuss Upadhyay’s second novel. Although I attempted to post my comments before we met, the day just whooshed by, not the least of which because I read the book on and off during the 24 hours that led up to the meeting (me? procrastinate? never!). Perhaps I’m also in a cloud of denial: if I don’t say this out loud, then it just won’t be true …
Alas, full disclosure: Buddha’s Orphans was a disappointing read; exactly because of the strength of Upadhyay’s stories, I expect as much from his novels. While the jacket flap promises “Nepal’s political upheavals as a backdrop,” what I missed most, ironically, was exactly that: Upadhyay’s complementary, signature ability to weave the intricacies of recent Nepali politics and history with unobtrusive, seamless precision into his narratives as he did in both short story collections. Certainly the looming politics cannot be ignored in this novel, either, but here the effect feels haphazard and disjointed.
That said, Orphans is not a ‘bad’ book … one of my hens remarked she thought it was an ideal ‘beach read.’ At its core is a love story: the foundling Raja and the privileged Nilu meet as the young children of servant and employer, are reunited in high school through Nilu’s elaborate machinations and, except for a brief period of separation, more or less live happily ever after.
Raja never gets over the loss of his birthmother; her suicide when Raja is an infant is noted on the novel’s first page, so no spoilers here. He conveniently (and heartlessly) dismisses the mother who initially, devotedly raised him until he was ‘legally’ stolen by a kind-hearted though weak man and his deranged wife. A few neighborhoods away, Nilu grows up a neglected only child of a wealthy widow. Nilu is left rather orphan-like by her mother’s alcohol and drug addictions, further fueled by a younger man whose lecherous greed extends to nubile Nilu; ironically, the two house servants, one of them being Raja’s discarded second mother, nurture and protect Nilu as best as they can until she makes her own life with Raja.
Through over half a century, the couple’s story navigates through deaths, births, friendships, loss, not to mention a few reincarnations and ghosts. Nilu remains the heroine through it all, although why she holds on to the self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-deceiving Raja seems contrary to her own resilient strength. Yet their bond survives all those decades, even while Raja is ready to risk it all again – “his back to her” – in his middle age as he claims the novel’s final sentence.
In an accompanying interview, Upadhyay admits to being “completely exhausted” after completing an almost 800-page first draft of Orphans. Perhaps that exhaustion is most evident near title’s end (p. 415) when Ranjana refers to her “younger brother” – a fellow hen also noticed the impossibility as Ranjana was not even born when that brother passed away. But errors or not, Upadhyay’s titles are still something to look forward to … and his next short stories, especially, will certainly be well anticipated.