Samrat Upadhyay is a professor of creative writing at Indiana University. He is Nepalese but writes in English, making him a “first” and therefore something of a phenomenon. This notable achievement is underpinned by the fact that he is a marvelous storyteller, literate and engaging, lyrical and sensitive. He has already produced two volumes of short stories, ARRESTING GOD IN KATHMANDU and THE ROYAL GHOST, and his debut novel, THE GURU OF LOVE.
BUDDHA’S ORPHANS is his second novel, a saga that sprawls out in time and place, from America to Nepal, from the birth of his main character Raja, abandoned as a baby, to Raja's meeting with his star-fated child love Nilu, to the birth of a granddaughter, a child who will not be abandoned and fought over and dragged from household to household or grow up in the thrall of an addicted parent, but will be surrounded by loving, real relatives.
It is Raja's insecure existence from earliest memory that initiates the story, the rickety structure of life for Raja. “Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself…..” Informally adopted by a servant woman, then formally re-adopted by a rich man with a mentally ill wife, Raja is tugged, all but kidnapped, from feast to famine throughout his childhood. But he has a co-conspirator: the wealthy Nilu, who is about Raja’s age and into whose orbit Raja is drawn as a small child. Nilu has material possessions, good schooling and ambition, while Raja has little more than broken promises and riddles about his real origins. However, this mystery gives him a certain creative allure, whereas Nilu suffers from being raised by a dissolute drunken mother. So both are, in one way or another, parentless. They begin to fall in love as children, meet up again in late adolescence, become lovers amid the political turmoil of Nepal in the 1960s and ’70s, and marry.
When their young son falls ill, riots in the streets prevent Nilu from getting him to the hospital. He dies, and afterwards there is blame and self-blame, some of the culpability seeming to lie with the political upheavals that are scarring the country. The marriage begins to slip away, as Raja moves out “for a while” because of Nilu's obsession with their dead child. “Days drifted by, and Raja still lived in Dillibazar, and she still didn’t turn on the lights when she got home in the evenings.” Then Nilu discovers that Raja has begun keeping company with a young music student, claiming that he is merely teaching her English, a thin excuse it seems to Nilu, who once had to teach English to Raja when he was still a rough street urchin. Nilu starts to believe that he may be unfaithful. She then finds comfort for herself, and perhaps revenge, in mothering a weak younger man. Both Nilu and Raja may feel the need to have a symbolic child to nurture.
Somehow, the two drift back together again, bound by their complex past. It is then, in the flowering years of their co-existence, that they learn that their daughter, in college in the United States, has disappeared. Fraught with fear and dreading another major loss, another abandonment, each parent frantically searches for their child in separate ways.
Samrat Upadhyay puts us in a world we know little about and makes us feel at home. Who could ask for more?
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 23, 2010