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Samrat Upadhyay
IU Creative Writing Program

Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010

IU professor's new book, 'Buddha's Orphans,' steeps multigenerational family saga in Nepali history

August 16, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- When Samrat Upadhyay sat down to start his second novel, Buddha's Orphans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2010), the director of Indiana University's Creative Writing program came to the blank page with a powerful image in mind -- an infant abandoned in Kathmandu's city park while his mother commits suicide in a nearby pond.

Samrat Upadhyay

Photo by Daniel Pickett Photography

Samrat Upadhyay

Print-Quality Photo

Upadhyay isn't sure where the image came from, but once the scene entered his mind, it stayed with him for months. "I didn't know exactly what shape the novel would end up taking, but there was enough energy and enough potency in that image that I thought it was worth pursuing," said Upadhyay, whom the San Francisco Chronicle once dubbed "a Buddhist Chekhov."

Three years of intensive research and writing, and 800 pages later, Upadhyay completed the first draft of what was to become the 400-plus page Buddha's Orphans, a densely layered love story within a multigenerational family saga, all set against the backdrop of half a century of Nepali history. Upadhyay is the first Nepali-born author to write in English and have his work widely published in the West.

Nepal is the frequent setting for Upadhyay's work, which has received recognition from the publication of his first collection of short stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, winner of the Whiting Award and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Program pick. His first novel, The Guru of Love, was named a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize, while his short story collection The Royal Ghosts won the Asian American Literary Award, the Society of Midland Authors Book Award and was declared a "Best Fiction" by the Washington Post, among other honors.

In Buddha's Orphans, the abandoned baby is named Raja ("king") by the servant woman who finds and raises him. Raja's initial abandonment leads to an unbreakable chain of events that eventually unites Raja with Nilu, the daughter of privilege he is fated to love.

While Raja grows up on the streets, Nilu leads a privileged but rocky existence as the daughter of an alcoholic mother in a crumbling mansion. The two cross paths as children, as young lovers and again, after both fear their marriage is over following an unspeakable loss. In the process of getting to know the couple and their relatives, readers can trace the roots of both through generations and see that it is indeed possible for future branches of a family tree to right the wrongs of the past.

Raja was the intended protagonist, Upadhyay said, but as the novel progressed, the story structure shifted. "The female figure came to the front and demanded attention. Nilu ends up being the protagonist in the novel," he said. "The same thing happened with The Guru of Love. The character of the wife, Goma, takes charge of that novel, which also happens here with Nilu. She comes about one-fourth into the novel, and she becomes stronger and stronger. A lot of my initial readers commented that the coming of Nilu galvanizes the novel."

Woven throughout the story are themes of unbreakable bonds between generations of families, Buddhist concepts of universal connections and suffering, and metaphorical themes of "orphans" who have been emotionally abandoned just as Raja was physically abandoned on the novel's first page.

Upadhyay said the three years of writing and research that went into Buddha's Orphans (discarded titles: The Queen's Pond and Nirvana, the latter of which too closely recalled the 90s grunge band) were the most intense he'd ever experienced.

Even his writing process changed. "I thought I was only a morning writer, but because this book was turning out to be so long, I had to start writing in the afternoons, evenings, at night. I started to write longhand, which I hadn't done in awhile," he said. "I started writing at airports, in Starbucks, at home."

After a six-to-eight month editing process with his publisher, Upadhyay thought he'd take a break from writing, but the story ideas continue to flow. "This novel exhausted me so much that I thought I would take a long writing break, but I didn't actually." He is working on a new story collection and is in the early stages of a new novel.

Buddha's Orphans is also being translated into German and Czech. For more information on Samrat Upadhyay, visit his profile here.

Please contact Jennifer Piurek, IU Communications, 812-856-4886, to arrange an interview with Samart Upadhyay.