Here I am at country number fifty, about a quarter of the way through my quest!
Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that would float to the surface of the pond later that week.
I couldn’t help being a little disappointed with this book. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I just didn’t feel that, despite being a full-length novel, it had the depth of Upadhyay’s “Arresting god in Kathmandu”, a collection of short stories that I found as wonderful as its title. Upadhyay was apparently the first Nepalese writer to be translated into English. It was after reading “Arresting” that I felt I needed to read more of his work, and chose this one when I changed the intention of my reading criteria to exclude short stories.
This is one of those luscious subcontinental family sagas I love so much. It centres on two Nepalis who we first meet as boy (Raja) and girl (Nilu). Only the boy, Raja, is a true orphan – the book starts with his mother drowning herself. He is taken in by a homeless man, Bokey Ba, and a footpath corn seller, Kaki; as he grows, the once unwanted boy becomes the object of a tug-of-war among those who care for him.
Nilu is only an orphan in the sense that she ends up despising and being estranged from her alcoholic, snobbish mother Muwa. Raja and Nilu become friends, are separated, fall in love, marry, separate, come together again…
The story takes place against the background of Nepal’s tumultuous recent history, beginning under the unpopular ‘King M.’ and following through his overthrow. Raja has a part, but only a very minor one, in the events – perhaps foreshadowed by Bokey Ba’s trying to dump him in the palace (leading to his name), and Raja’s chewing on a button with the King’s portrait. Raja takes part in demos against the monarchy without telling his wife, though she spies him at one. When their young son is taken gravely ill she is held up by a demo (which Raja isn’t at) and he dies. This leads to their estrangement.
I found it a totally enjoyable read, so please don’t let my slight tinge of disappointment put you off. I suspect Upadhyay might become one of the great subcontinental writers; as to whether his forte is in fact in short stories rather than novels, well, I’ll just have to read more of him to find out, which will be no hardship!
UPADHYAY, Samrat (सम्राट उपाध्याय) (1963 – ), Buddha’s Orphans, Boston/NY, Mariner, 2011, ISBN 978-0-547-46990-4
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession
of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his
first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds
of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property
of some one or other of their daughters.”
Surely that is one of the most famous, and best, kick-offs to a novel ever. And the pure brilliance of being able to summarise a plot in a single sentence carries through the book.
How do you choose what to read from a country that could keep you reading for generations, if you discovered the secret of immortality? In the end, I ended up with the book I was reading at the time (or, one of them).
Having escaped having to read it at school, I first had a go at this classic and deeply loved novel a few years ago. I found it hard to engage with a cast of females who seemed to have no aspirations for their lives other than to get married – it had little appeal to me and it all seemed rather sad. However at second attempt it did eventually grab me. I could hardly criticise a work for its theme (so wonderfully summarised in its ingenious first sentence) or for portraying life and mores of the idle rich and not-so-rich as they were at the time of its setting. Austen, like her heroine, does wry humour very well. It is in fact a very sparkling book and I can understand why it is so well-loved.
I don’t think it would be spoiling the well-known plot for anyone if I revealed that the guy gets his girl (or the other way round) in the end. Anyone who had lived in a vacuum and never heard of the book would see the inevitability of the denouement from the beginning. But it’s Austen’s genius that for almost all of the book we can’t see how the headstrong Elizabeth and the arrogant Darcy could ever get together. It took me a while, but I finally appreciate what a marvellous work it is..
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), Pride and Prejudice, London: Penguin, 1975 (originally 1813), ISBN 0-14-043072-5