Buddha’s Orphans: We’re All Connected in our Suffering
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on July 26, 2010
The Huffington Post By Samrat Upadhyay*
Like many writers at the start of their projects, I didn’t know what I was doing when I began writing my novel Buddha’s Orphans. I had the image of an infant abandoned in Kathmandu’s city park by his mother, who then jumps into a nearby pond. The time was not now; it was the old Kathmandu of the sixties, with its open spaces and its tiger-striped taxis. The picture in my mind was intriguing enough that I decided to pursue it. The novel soon evolved into a labyrinthal story with multiple characters and a historical canvas that stretched for decades. In the beginning I had thought that the orphan boy, Raja, was the central character, but as the writing progressed other characters emerged who were equally important. One of them was Kaki, the woman who raises Raja in the streets and who gets rejected by him. Another character, Nilu, turned out to be even more of a presence than Raja: it’s her resolve, her faith in Raja, and her concern and compassion for the downtrodden that sweeten the novel.
By the time I finished writing the initial draft, which was close to 800 pages, the novel had taken everything out of me. Yet in my own multi-generational, multi-charactered story I rediscovered a truth that I had always believed: that all of us are interconnected, that what we do here has an effect over there, that a good deed done here engenders a good result there, that people all over the world, fundamentally, aspire to a few moments of joy in their lives of suffering. The journeys of the characters in Buddha’s Orphans–Raja, Kaki, Nilu, Ganga Da, Mohini, Shiva, Ranjana–intersect and intertwine in ways that chip away at the notion that we are self-enclosed entities merely chasing after our own narrow interests. By the novel’s conclusion, it becomes clear that there is no escape from how tightly we’re bound to one another, whether we live in prosperous America or poor Nepal, and that there’s no escape from suffering.
Having grown up in Nepal, I was not unfamiliar with suffering. I saw it all around me in the poverty, the lack of education, the debasement of certain groups of people merely because of their caste or skin color. Yet when I came to the U.S. at a young age, I discovered that this country too wasn’t exempt: people suffered here too, even as they were surrounded by luxuries and endless promise of happiness by the media. Life is suffering. This is what Gautama Buddha discovered under a tree in Bodhgaya, India, ages ago, and this fundamental truth permeates Buddha’s Orphans. The reader discovers that it’s not only Raja who is an orphan, but also Kaki, who dies without getting a glimpse of the boy she raised; Nilu, whose yearning for her own mother’s love is no less heartbreaking; and Ganga Da, whose desire to keep his mentally ill wife pacified leads him to a cruel act that haunts him forever.
* SAMRAT UPADHYAY is the author of Buddha’s Orphans, Arresting God in Kathmandu, which earned him a Whiting Award, The Royal Ghosts, and The Guru of Love, which was a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. Upadhyay directs the creative writing program at Indiana University.