Nepali author Samrat Upadhyay’s Buddha’s Orphans is a twee love story set in Kathmandu, tracing the life of Raja, an orphan brought up by a childless couple, and Nilu, a girl from a privilege background but with a drug-addicted mother. It is not an entirely bad novel, because the story compelled me to keep reading, and I finished the 460 pages pretty quickly. But it felt like it could’ve done with a fierce editing (now that I am an editor I notice these things!)
The premise is that Raja the orphan is disconnected from his roots because his mother killed herself when he was only a baby, leaving him haunted by shadows of her presence. Raja and Nilu meet first as children, and in their teenage years Nilu tracks Raja down (through what I thought was an implausible connection to him) and so begins a passionate love affair that lasts their whole lives. But Raja is troubled, and cannot feel content until he ‘remembers’ the story of his mother, something that only happens when his own daughter is grown up and facing parallel struggles to his long-dead mother.
Aspects of Buddha’s Orphans could’ve worked, as it is not without it charm. But it was at least a hundred pages too long. Far too much time was spent on narrating very mundane details, such as finding a house and looking for work, which was just uninteresting. And much of Upadhyay’s language and imagery was odd (“he took the tea like a docile cat.” [p. 169]), overblown (“Something was happening that was about to change things for her.” [p. 113]) and just plain cringeworthy (“That night they lost their virginity.” )
The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have a very different perspective of Buddha’s Orpahns from me. A quote on the back states that Upadhyay has been hailed as “a Buddhist Chekhov”, and one on the cover that “Upadhyay’s Kathmandu is as specific and heartfelt as Joyce’s Dublin”. While I think it’s rather hyperbolic to compare Upadhyay to Joyce (and certainly to Chekhov!), I did appreciate the introduction to the city that the novel provided me with. Kathmandu has been a surprisingly difficult city for me to get to grips with spatially, as there doesn’t seem to be a decent city map available anywhere, and it’s not really a place to get to know by walking around it, as I normally would, because it’s just too dusty, potholed, traffic-ridden, and of course wet at this time of year. So this novel helped me to piece sections together in my imagination, and for that it is memorable.
Samrat Upadhyay is one of Nepal’s best-known contemporary English-language authors, and it was perhaps a mistake to begin with this generally mediocre novel, as I have heard that some of his others, such as Arresting God in Kathmandu, are better.
And whoever selected the deplorable cover photograph should reconsider their career in design.