Elevate Difference

Buddha's Orphans

I’ve been behind the ball in the sense that I haven’t had a chance to read any works by Samrat Upadhyay. Upadhyay is a Nepalese-American writer, who has already published three full-length works of fiction, including Arresting God in Kathmandu, The Royal Ghosts, and The Guru of Love. His latest novel is called Buddha's Orphans, and since it was just published, I felt it would be the perfect place to address my reading oversight.

Buddha's Orphans is exemplary of a book that entwines the political upheaval of Nepal with a personal love story. The emotional core is the fragile romance that blooms between Raja, an orphan, and Nilu, who hails from an upper-middle class background. One might read the novel through the frame of a Jamesonian allegory, but there are really too many layers and too many subplots to consider that already fracture our understanding of the novel, where post-colonial allegory is perhaps one of many competing concerns.

What makes Upadhyay’s novel a success is not so much the romance narrative itself, but the concluding arc in which Upadhyay makes clear that Raja’s experience is not singular. Indeed, there is an incredibly interesting repetitive narrative motif that emerges toward the novel’s end that makes it unclear whether a certain portion is occurring in one time period or another. Yet the point is dynamically made: the “orphans” that populate the novel are many in form and character, and the novel imagines a way in which to interrogate the cycle of expectation and caste that are the mainstay of other works situated in the field. Indeed, Raja and Nilu embark on a love marriage, rather than the more traditional forms that arise out of arrangements and matchmakings.

There is also a very interesting occupational trajectory for Raja, as he begins to work for a publishing company that produces tourist guides. Here, I couldn’t help but think about the way Upadhyay “domesticates” the Nepalese fictional terrain so that we might move beyond the touristic gaze that reduces the local population to “local color,” so quaint as to be purchased through trinkets and souvenirs. To be sure, Upadhyay does grant the reader uninformed of Nepalese contexts an engaging narrative, but it is not without its political heft and Raja continually considers the nature of his own political activism and his desire to produce social change.

Given the additive impulse that still sustains many of our teaching interests in Asian American literature, Upadhyay offers us a narrative which calls attention to a country often overlooked with the pan-ethnic rubric that situates the field. In this regard, his works are a welcome addition to syllabi looking to extend into national territories deserving of more representational inquiry. I enthusiastically look to catching up on his previous works!

Cross-posted at Asian American Literature Fans

Written by: Stephen Hong Sohn, August 16th 2010