Buddha's Orphans†is ambitious in a way perhaps no work of fiction by a Nepali writing in English has been. It spans almost the entirety of post-Rana Nepal, ending with the royal massacre of 2001, and in doing so follows the lifelines of four generations in Kathmandu. An abandoned orphan, Raja, grows up next to Rani Pokhari, the site of his unknown mother's suicide. Nilu grows out of her own prosperous, but dysfunctional family. Together, they live through the joys and sorrows of the tumultous decades of the Nepali half-century. An epic premise, and who better to bring it to life than pioneering Nepali author Samrat Upadhyay? Indeed, a blurb at the back†likens it to a 'great old-fashioned Russian novel'.
But one fears such voluble praise does a book no favours. The implicit comparison to such luminaries as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and of course, Chekhov,†is ludicrous, and builds up the kind of expectation that hardly any living author anywhere could satisfy. Are we even expected to take the praise at face value in Kathmandu, where audiences and peers are all too eager to hype each other up, lest the modesty of their talents be revealed to all?
Stripped of the hype, then, Upadhyay's latest novel is a reasonably entertaining romp through Kathmandu's recent history. As Kanak Dixit noted in the Tavern Tales session at the Nepal-Bharat Library last Saturday, Buddha's Orphans†reminds us there was a Kathmandu before 1990. Upadhyay has gone to some effort to recreate the setting in which his characters take root, and it is instructive to observe how he incrementally conjures up the congestion of the modern-day capital, as well as the changing public moods through the Panchayat era and into the confusion of the violent, democratic 1990s.
In contrast, Upadhyay's characters do not entirely convince in the manner of the great Russian novels. It doesn't help that both Raja and Nilu grow up in extreme circumstances in the bland conformity of Panchayat-era Kathmandu, and that every act of theirs seems designed to entertain the reader rather than conform to reality.
The very strangeness of a tale is often that which warrants its narration. But Upadhyay's cause isn't much helped by his publisher in the subcontinent, Rupa & Co. They clearly don't bother to edit: Buddha's Orphans†features embarrassing typos, narrative dislocations and ill-advised flashbacks. Whatever charm there is in Upadhyay's straightforward, detailed prose is diminished by the sloppy editing, which is an affront to Nepali audiences. If there is a true orphan in this tale, it has to be the novel itself.