For readers mainly familiar with Samrat Upadhyay’s short stories (Arresting God in Kathmandu, and The Royal Ghosts are his two books of short stories, The Guru of Love his one previous novel), the expansiveness of Buddha’s Orphans comes as a surprise. Beginning in 1962 in Kathmandu with a child left in the heart of the city by his mother, who then drowns herself, the novel spans almost fifty years from King Mahendra’s early repressive rule to the fall of Nepal’s monarchy. It is at once a love story and a story of many abandonments: Raja by his mother; Kaki, the poor corn-seller who saves him, by Raja; Nilu, Raja’s wife, by her dissolute mother; Nepal by its rulers. One is drawn deep into the karmic heart of this story, because Upadhyay does not abandon his role as a masterful, unobtrusive storyteller. What emerges as wisdom and life’s mystery resonate because they are embodied in lives that stand for themselves, the author’s hand invisible.
It is hard not to be reminded of the orphan heroes of Dickens. Only here the benefactors are replaced by benefactresses. There is no passing through the underworld of thieves’ dens. Only the psychic underworld of the abandoned child, who with the help of powerful female spirits, Nilu and Ranjana, their daughter (Upadhyay is a strong believer in female spiritual power), achieves in the end a kind of weary wholeness.