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Last modified: Thursday, March 18, 2004

IU Feature: A guru at IU

Nepalese American creative writing professor Samrat Upadhyay explores the universal in acclaimed debut novel

IUB Creative Writing Professor Samrat Upadhyay

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Mount Everest. Monsoons. Buddha. Shangri-La. Kathmandu.

Think Nepal, and you'll likely think exotic.

Yet Indiana University Bloomington Creative Writing Professor Samrat Upadhyay said the day-to-day struggles that his native countrymen face are universal. They include falling in love, getting married, lusting after the forbidden, staying faithful and finding happiness. And they are among the themes Upadhyay explored in his debut novel, The Guru of Love, which was recently nominated for the 2004 Kiriyama Prize in fiction.

The $30,000 prize is given annually to outstanding books that promote a greater understanding of and among the nations of the Pacific Rim and South Asian subcontinent. Among the five fiction finalists are winners and finalists of England's Booker Prize and the National Book Award. The winner will be announced Tuesday (March 23).

"The problems I write about in this book are universal even though they are specific. People want love. They want to marry. People are surprised to find that (the Nepalese people) struggle with the same things they do," said Upadhyay, who is the first Nepalese-born fiction writer to be published in the West.

Upadhyay, 41, is not foreign to international success. The Guru of Love, recently released in paperback, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year 2003 and received rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal. Additionally, his short stories have been read on National Public Radio and published in Scribner's Best of the Writing Workshops, edited by Sherman Alexie, and Best American Short Stories 1999, edited by Amy Tan.

His first book, the short story collection Arresting God in Kathmandu, was the recipient of the 2001 Whiting Writers' Award, given annually to emerging poets and fiction writers who display "exceptional talent and promise." It was also included in the Fall 2001 Barnes & Noble Great Writers Program.

"Samrat is a brilliant writer and an utterly original storyteller," said Tony Ardizzone, director of IUB's Creative Writing Program. "His fiction is so cleanly and seamlessly written that it seems nearly effortless, and his story lines are so engaging that once you pick up one of his stories or his novel, The Guru of Love, you can hardly put the book back down."

Upadhyay, who was born and raised in Kathmandu and lived there until he turned 21, said The Guru of Love addresses the themes he began exploring as a young writer studying for his doctorate at the University of Hawaii. He has been particularly interested in examining how individuals negotiate with the constraints placed upon them by society. Often this involves the workings of the male-female relationship and "the back and forth" between the two sexes, he said.

Cover of "The Guru of Love"

The book chronicles a doomed love affair between Ramchandra, an unhappy, overworked and married math teacher, and one of his mysterious young students, Malati. Set in Kathmandu in the 1990s against a tumultuous political landscape, it is a story about reconciling the spiritual and the sensual, accommodating tradition and dealing with the complexities of modernization. After its release, Upadhyay was praised for his "cool hand to universal themes" (Time magazine) and for portraying "a Kathmandu as specific and heartfelt as Joyce's Dublin" (San Francisco Chronicle). The San Francisco Chronicle named it among the Best Books of 2003.

The book also reflected Upadhyay's growing interest in the political fabric of Nepal. It touches upon the pro-democratic movement that occurred in the country during the early 1990s, a movement that is now being threatened by a violent Maoist insurgency. Upadhyay addressed the rebellion, which has left thousands dead and has crippled an economy heavily dependent on tourism, in a November op-ed in the New York Times. In the editorial, he was critical of both the Maoists -- for continuing the killing -- and the monarchy, for raising public anxiety that the country was reverting to the repressive regime that ran the country from 1962 to 1990 under absolute rule. He also urged the United States to treat the country like a potential Afghanistan and push for democratic change.

"With Guru, I was just touching upon things, but lately because of the current situation in Nepal, I have become much more interested in not only the social fabric, but also the political fabric and how individuals respond to it," he said.

"I'm still not writing political stories in the overt sense. Politics interests me only in terms of how it affects the lives of individuals," he added. "I don't envision myself as a political spokesperson."

Upadhyay said the political situation in Nepal has affected his writing style, which critics have praised for its powerful simplicity. "My writing has become even quicker and my language a little bit harsher," he said. "I've also become much more impatient with the individual psychology. I don't dwell on it as much."

Instead, he is concentrating on using his imagination to expand on his observations of Nepalese city life. He recognizes that his own experiences are limited, since he grew up in a middle class family (Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world) and left Kathmandu as a young man in 1984. When he returned nine years later, he discovered a much more crowded and culturally-changed city. He admitted that some people have dismissed him as someone who can't represent Nepal, because he has been living in America for so long. He said others have accused him of pandering to a U.S. audience, because his stories have dealt with the topic of sex.

Still, many other Nepalese are proud of his work, he said. They like the fact that one of their own is making a name for himself in a field dominated by celebrated Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie. "It's also brought attention to them at a time when all they've been hearing for the past 10 years is negative talk," he added.

Heartened by this support, Upadhyay said he will continue to write about the themes he has felt so strongly about since he launched his writing career.

"A lot of my younger students are told to 'only write what you know,' and this is mostly true," he said. "But this advice confuses them in the sense that they only feel they can write about the experiences of their own lives. The Chinese writer Ha Jin said literature brings people together. It doesn't divide them. I believe that the recognition of self in others is the primary function of literature."


  • Samrat Upadhyay continues a recent string of major award nominations for IUB's creative writing faculty. Kevin Young, the Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry, was one of five nominees for the 2003 National Book Award in poetry and received a Guggenheim fellowship for the current academic year. Dana Johnson, who is currently on academic leave, was a finalist for the first Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in 2002. Her short story collection, Break Any Woman Down, was the recipient of the 2000 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. To read previous stories about these authors, go to (Young) or (Johnson).
  • Indiana University offered courses in creative writing throughout most of the 20th century. Marguerite Young, Robert P. T. Coffin, Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom and Robert Frost, whose 130th birth anniversary will be March 26, all taught courses in poetry and fiction-writing at IU as early as 1941. The graduate creative writing program is one of the nation's oldest and most distinguished, having been founded in 1948 by short-story writer Peter Taylor.
  • More than one-third of IUB's graduate students in creative writing are students of color, making the program the most successfully diversified creative writing program in the nation.