Buddha’s Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay

BY ANTHONY COOK, Editor-in-Chief

OrphansAuthor Samrat Upadhyay will be visiting Purdue University’s campus tomorrow for a Q&A and a reading. Check out the details on our reading series page. Upadhyay was the first Nepali author writing in English to be widely published in the West. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories and his fourth book, Buddha’s Orphans, was published this summer. He also directs Indiana University’s Creative Writing Program. If you are in the area, be sure to check out the reading.

I’m looking forward to the visit because I am a big fan of Buddha’s Orphans. The book is an impressive display of complexity and control. Set against the background of Nepal’s political upheaval, the story follows two lovers, Raja and Nilu, through their complicated lives and personal struggles, which include the suicide of Raja’s mother when he was an infant, a street vendor-turned-servant’s attempt to raise him, Nilu’s alcoholic, pill popping mother, and the corrupt adoption of Raja by a middle-class family that devastates the woman who has raised him.

And that’s only the first third of the book.

Raja and Nilu reunite in high school, fall in love, and elope. Raja remains jobless for two years, often participating in political rallies, but eventually finds work when a son is born to the couple. While still in elementary school, the boy suddenly dies when Nilu is unable to seek medical care for him due to a massive demonstration that clogs the roads. Although Raja had not participated, she and her husband have trouble dealing with the death and separate, each taking lovers. Eventually, they reunite and give birth to a daughter.

And that’s only the second third of the book.

The novel closes with a desperate Raja and Nilu searching for their daughter, who has gone to the U.S. to attend Northwestern University and has suddenly stopped communicating with them. Fearing the worst, they are about to set off for Chicago to find her when Nilu, sensing that the daughter is in Kathmandu, decides to stay.

I won’t spoil the novel’s finale, but you can probably begin to sense the level of complexity in this novel. It covers more than sixty years, dives into the minds of many different characters, and even includes several ghost-like appearances from the deceased.
Despite the complexity of the plot and form, the language is relatively unadorned, and though the story sometimes digresses from strict chronology, the reader always senses that they are in good authorial hands. Upadhyay is a master at handling the omniscient point of view. There is a strong sense of continuity to the story that is impressive given its complexity. Ultimately, it reveals the generational cycles of love and rejection that so often seem to dictate the direction of individual family members’ lives. And ultimately, it resolves the question of whether it’s possible to break free from those cycles.

Whether you’re looking for an exquisitely crafted story or simply an excellent read, Buddha’s Orphans is both. Pick up the book and, if you can, drop by tomorrow’s events. Both are free and open to the public.

Buddha’s Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July 2010)
448 pages, $26 Hardcover