The latest work by Samrat Upadhyay is a novel about love without any boundaries. Most of the events in the novel take place in Kathmandu amidst social and political chaos, and spans from the early 70s to more recent times. In fact, these political upheavals act as a backdrop to the setting of this magnanimous love story which begins with the early life of an orphan, Raja, who is looked after by an almost penniless woman who soon grows to love him as her own child. When she moves to work as a housekeeper in an eccentric upper class widow’s home, Raja soon becomes close to the widow’s estranged daughter, Nilu. What follows is a typical“ lower-class poor boy meets upper-class rich girl” plot which drags for a lengthy amount of time and leaves readers feeling adrift in an old-school Bollywood commercial movie scenario. But, Upadhyay manages to break free from the stodgy, predictable stance and the sluggish pace of the novel after a couple of chapters. The elopement of the central characters brings a sanguine relief to the novel as we find Raja and Nilu hanging about the streets of hippie-fueled, late 70s Thamel, smoking pot with foreigners, fooling around with shopkeepers,and amusing each other with lengthy discussions ranging from politics (to which Raja has a rather radical outlook) to literature. The challenges the couple face as an unconventional pair and the unavoidable ego-clashes further solidifies the novel.
There are numerous colorful and vivid characters in this novel like “Kaki”, Raja’s early foster mother and constant doter, Ganga-Da and Jamuna-Mummy, who float through almost the entire novel, “Muwa”,Nilu’s drug-addled mother, Sumit, Muwa’s shady lover, Prateema, Nilu’s childhood friend with Bengali genes, and the dark and disturbed Shiva, who has a tortured and painful family history. There are more integral characters in the novel (some of whom I am not at liberty to discuss).
As mentioned before, this is a lengthy novel (almost 500 pages) and has numerous sub-plots that are a welcome change from the drudgery of the flimsy central plot of Raja and Nilu’s marriage. Upadhyay also goes on to unlock the mystery of Raja’s actual mother in the closing stages of the novel (which could have been done earlier on). There are tearful moments in the book (which I am not going to talk about here) but these seem rather forced compared to the genuine tragic moments like Shiva’s past, Nilu’s mother’s drug lapses and Raja’s permanently hurt ego which rage swiftly through the pages at lightning speed. Light and dark moments also parallel each other as we find Raja and Nilu referring to their lovemaking in the funniest of manners at one instant and then quarrelling incessantly during another.
The title of the novel does justice to the plot and the characters, as both Raja and Nilu are orphans in their own way. Where Raja is an actual orphan, Nilu, although loved by her mother, is in fact a forlorn and abandoned creature in her own home. Both do not get enough love during their childhood and are thus forced to love each other in a manner most monumental, almost holy- as if the gods wanted them to elope and love each other to the utmost.
Upadhyay could have done without the aforementioned sluggish portions in the plot and cut short a hundred pages or so, which could have made this novel a much better read.
Buddha’s Orphans is no Arresting God in Kathmandu or The Guru of Love, but is worth a read for fans of his earlier works.
If you Liked Buddha’s Orphans...
Books like Buddha’s Orphans, capture the essence of a particular place, a particular time, of home and beyond. Written in touching and matter-of-fact prose, they let you peek into the lives and stories of people from different cultures and different worlds. Here are some books on the same line:
Some Sing, Some Cry (Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza)
Moving and riveting, Some Sing, Some Cry is a historical saga of African American life. It portrays a bittersweet tale of seven generations in a family of mixed blood and musical geniuses. The story follows them on a journey through the watershed events of America’s troubled, vibrant history--from Reconstruction to both World Wars, from the Harlem Renaissance to Vietnam and the modern day.
Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu)
This book describes the lives of three of the seven daughters of Wang Lianfang in late 20th century China. Bi Feiyu tells the story of each sister as each deals with betrayal and cruelty and strives to find freedom and identity. The book creates an insightful portrait of China during the past half a century and narrates a bleak tale of human miseries and of women struggling to survive in a culture that devalues them.
Saraswati Park (Anjali Joseph)
This book describes the suburban, petit bourgeois world of Bombay with acuity. Mohan and his wife, Lakshmi are joined in Saraswati Park, a suburban housing colony, by their nephew, Ashish, a diffident, sexually uncertain 19-year-old. As Saraswati Park unfolds, the lives of each of the three characters are thrown into sharp relief by the comical frustrations of family life: annoying relatives, unspoken yearnings and unheard grievances.
Black Mamba Boy (Nadifa Mohamed)
Mohamed’s beautifully rendered debut, inspired by her father’s life, opens in 1935 Aden, Yemen. It follows the story of 11-year-old Jama who lived a life of poverty with his mother. When his mother dies, he embarks on a journey to Italian controlled Eritrea in search of his father. Mohamed gives a vivid description of the boy’s life on the streets and the cruel treatment dealt to the African askaris by the Italians.
Review By: Eliz Manandhar