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Epic yearnings

Buddha's Orphans Samrat Upadhyay
Rupa & Co., 450 pages,
Rs 470 (paperback)

Buddha's Orphansis 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 backlikens 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 Orphansreminds 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 Orphansfeatures 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.

Rabi Thapa

1. nasp
samrat wrote this for US market .. so fair analysis wud be how's it doing there.

2. Niraj
You can blame the publisher for 'embarrassing typos' --but 'narrative dislocations' and 'ill-advised flashbacks' ? They are more the writer's responsibility than the editor's. Besides, Samrat's novel is being published in the US as well. Unless he has two versions ( which would be absurd for a piece of fiction), why pick on just Rupa ? That said, Rupa has been justly famous for shoddy proof-reading and binding. Their books seem to physically fall apart at the seams when the first ray of sunshine hits them.

3. Again
'affront to Nepali audiences' - ? A book is not a play or a movie that has 'audiences'. It has readers. Apparently, Rupa & Co is not the only place with sloppy editing :) But then the reviewer (Rabi Thapa) himself is the editor. Who edits the editor ?

4. Roopesh Joshi
Yay! Glad to see this review - an English novel I can read about Nepal once more. Sad that Rabi dai didn't have too many good things to say about it, but I'll give it a try.Seems the book is going to be out next week on Amazon. Glad that it spans generations and is a long read. Just in time, as I just finished reading the previous book I was reading. I hope this book will be fun.

5. reader
good review. in kathmandu we need a few people with the guts to call a spade a spade, especially when it comes to "creative" endeavours, most of which are sloppy and mediocre. it seems everyone is friends with everyone in town and they all go about praising each other right and left. i suspect this would be very harmful in the long run.

6. bibek
Seems interesting! I like his way of presenting Nepali society. His short stories were superb but novel did not met my expectation. Hope this is better than previous, get love from reader and  won't turn orphan. 

7. Rauniyar
I would like to read this one from US resident perspective as the book is meant for.

The context might not fit in if one resides by Rani Pokhari by the looks and sounds of it.

8. sashi
I have read Samrat's  previous books.  I found his writing style simple and pretty basic.  To compare him to other literary giants is preposterous and simple silly.  His short stories are interesting.  Those urban situations, family relations and the sexual incidents are all quite interesting and amusing "stuff" for foreigners.  Just look at this passage Page 140 from The Guru of Love  when he talks about Dasain: " "They boiled goats' testicles, dipped them in salt and chili powder.  Goat ears were barbecued on gas stoves and passed around to the children.  People ate until their stomach were bloated, until they became sick and had to be rushed to the hospital. Other people ate until, heavy with food, they fell asleep, dreaming of riches raining on them  directly from the open mouths of the ferocious Durga."   I don't have any clue what he is talking about.  These days, any high schooler can do a much better job in writing and describing the virtues of a festival like Dasain.  He is clearly targeting the Western audience with his comical descriptions and being cute with an outlandish reference to Durga. The quality of his writing is poor when compared to many other writers who have made it big in the US (e.g.,  Jhumpa Lahiri -- The Namesake)... So forget about the Russian literary giants.  That said, I wish him good luck with his new book.  

9. anish
Samrat's writing is very very amateurish. One would expect better from a professor of creative writing. I think likes of Manjushree and Sushma do better jobs of depicting Nepalese circumstances than Samrat.  He couldn't be be more preposterous when it comes to writing on Nepalese Social setting.

10. sashi
In my view writing involves the understanding the content and bringing those ideas to life through eloquence.  (I gave an example of the Dasain festival where he fails both in contextual depiction and eloquence.)   But, in my effort to understand why he got so much publicity in the West, I kept looking for evidence of eloquence in his passages.  I could not find any.  The content seemed laden with stereotypes, and mostly presented in a childish manner, and not at all as a professor of creative writing (as someone said above).  Even sex (recurring theme in his writing for some strange reason) in various permutation seemed a bit vulgar and not at all sensual.  Again, as a Nepali, I am very happy to see him get such recognition in the West. 

11. sour grapes
Sashi and Anish, how many books have you guys published? Who published them? Where?

12. rigs
I think a very valid argument is raised about Samrat's writings catering to the Western readers, which is something Indian writers writing in  English have been always criticized for. And ever since his first work of fiction Arresting God in Kathmandu I have been hearing these criticisms. When we read some of the descriptions myself from Samrat I personally have some reservations and feel the writer is not doing full justice and that's where statements like our high schoolers can do a better job comes from because we feel a writer of Samrat's stature ought to do better. But then the writer also has to think about his larger audience which unfortunately is not Nepali but the readers outside Nepal predominantly in the US so in his attempt to cater to them, the depictions don't ring true to us, seems outlandish, reads way over the top, profanity seems to be lurking around every page. But that's what sells. But I don't agree with the statement that Samrat's writing is amateurish which reminds me of an Indian reviewer alluding to Samrat as a poor man's Jhumpa Lahiri. I think a storyteller has to have a very lucid style and stringing sentences after sentences, paragraphs after paragraphs and pages after pages with that lucidity is no mean achievement and you see it as amateurish writing. I think you need to change your lenses fogged with whatever it is. 

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)