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Buddha's Orphans Hardcover – July 14, 2010

3.8 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

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)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This absorbing novel is as rich in its quiet moments of loneliness and tea making as it is powerful in its presentation of an ancient culture perpetuating its own misogyny. Over four generations, Kathmandu endures the arrival of Western hippies, the reign of a corrupt royal family, and violent citizen uprisings meant to topple government but instead obstructs the vital movements of daily life. In the midst, Nilu, a wealthy girl with an alcoholic mother, and Raja, an abandoned orphan, grow up, find, lose, and find one another again. Generations recur with inheritances they can't understand, but that drive the momentum of the tale where choices made from a forceful longing have the power to alter fate. Upadhyay's (Arresting God in Kathmandu) masterful prose shows increasing sophistication and a grasp of the sublime, and he is surprisingly effective in conveying the horrors and wonders of motherhood. Throughout, Upadhyay portrays the tenderness of love and the alienating, sometimes fatal effects on women living in a society that doesn't allow for unplanned pregnancies. By the end, Upadhyay is forgiven the few small coincidences that scaffold the plot because the story is so beautifully told.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (July 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618517502
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618517503
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,583,123 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I was impressed with Upadhyay's book of short stories, The Royal Ghosts, which I read while traveling in Nepal--but I wished some of the stories could have gone on longer. So, I looked forward to reading this novel-length story that focuses on Raja and Nilu, who are "orphans" in different ways. I was not disappointed. The reader understands Raja's and Nilu's personalities and relationship through Upadhyay's description of their upbringing; and the progression of their relationship over the years is an engaging, and sometimes painful, tale, which also reveals a great deal about modernization in Nepal. The situation of young Raja and his early caretakers, the homeless Bokey Ba and corn-seller Kaki, also reveals a level of poverty unknown to most American readers. But the less positive feelings generated by the book are balanced by the striking human kindness that threads throughout the story.

I agree with some reviewers that Raja's behavior seems less consistent and predictable than Nilu's. I also agree with those who believe that the political context in Nepal is described too vaguely. However, having been to Nepal and learned about the recent political history from other sources, I felt this novel enhanced my understanding. Overall, it is an engaging and impressive book.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is story of Raja, a poor orphan boy, and Nilu, a girl from a well off family. Raja is abandoned by his mother and raised by two surrogate mothers, first Kaki a poor woman who sells grilled corn on the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal and then Jamuna Mummy, the mentally unstable wife of a middle class government worker. It is when Kaki becomes a servant in Nilu's household that the two children meet and become close. Their love will last decades, through tragedy and triumph and the ups and down of their love is the focus of the novel.

Raja and Nilu's love is played out against the vaguely described political upheavals of Nepal from the 1960s to the present. This vagueness is just one of the problems with this novel which could and should have been a much better book with proper editing and advice.

As far as I can discern this novel was written in English for a Western audience. However, the political upheaval of Nepal is so vaguely described that a reader seeking to understand it better must search out additional information instead of having its historic context morefully integrated into the novel. Additionally many Nepali words are used throughout the novel and a glossary would have been a help to the reader.

I found the story moving, but it dragged on for about three-quarters of the way through when suddenly the style of the storytelling changed to one of alternating cliffhanger chapters dealing with two simulaneous mysteries which brings the novel to its conclusion. In addition, I found the character Raja quite annoying for most of the novel. He is an arrogant slacker who doesn't seem to deserve the loving and more complexly portrayed Nilu.
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1 Comment 3 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
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.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I tried really hard to enjoy this book. I started it no fewer than three times, and each time managed to slog through a couple more chapters than the time before. In the end, I gave it up as being better suited to other readers.

The prose was well crafted and nicely atmospheric. The characters were well drawn and the dialogue effective. All that said, I found that even after 1/2 the book, I simply couldn't care less about any of the characters or the storyline. The story plodded along from scene to scene, and I found myself wishing something, anything would happen to someone, anyone that might make me care what was going on.

It seemed like the book jacket pretty much summed up the plot, but maybe there were some great surprises in the second half. It will take a more persistent reader than me to find out. Not recommended to anyone interested in plot, although it may be enjoyable for those looking for a well-written window into a non-western culture.
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