Buddha's Orphans

Buddha's Orphans

by Samrat Upadhyay


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Buddha's Orphans by Samrat Upadhyay

Called “a Buddhist Chekhov” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Samrat Upadhyay’s writing has been praised by Amitav Ghosh and Suketu Mehta, and compared with the work of Akhil Sharma and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Upadhyay’s novel, Buddha’s Orphans, uses Nepal’s political upheavals of the past century as a backdrop to the story of an orphan boy, Raja, and the girl he is fated to love, Nilu, a daughter of privilege.Their love story scandalizes both families and takes readers through time and across the globe, through the loss of and search for children, and through several generations, hinting that perhaps old bends can, in fact, be righted in future branches of a family tree.
Buddha’s Orphans is a novel permeated with the sense of how we are irreparably connected to the mothers who birthed us and of the way events of the past, even those we are ignorant of, inevitably haunt the present. But most of all it is an engrossing, unconventional love story and a seductive and transporting read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547469904
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

SAMRAT UPADHYAY is the author of Arresting God in Kathmandu, a Whiting Award winner, The Royal Ghosts, and The Guru of Love, a New York Times Notable Book and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year. He has written for the New York Times and has appeared on BBC Radio and National Public Radio. Upadhyay directs the creative writing program at Indiana University.

Read an Excerpt


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. The School Leaving Certificate exam results had just been published in Gorkhapatra, so everyone deduced that the woman, like a few others already that year, 1962, had killed herself over her poor performance.
 That morning Kaki was at Rani Pokhari, getting ready to sell her corn on the sidewalk, when she saw Bokey Ba approach from the parade ground area, carrying something on his palms, as if balancing a tray.
 “After ages, Bokey Ba is coming to visit me,” Kaki said to the woman who was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the shoe shop, where Kaki sold her corn. Bokey Ba, so called because of the goatlike beard hanging from his chin, was a derelict who’d made the parade ground his home for no one knew how long.
 He knelt in front of Kaki. In his arms was a baby swaddled in a woman’s dirty shawl. Kaki let out a gasp. “Whose baby did you steal? Look, Vaishali, come here.”
 Vaishali ambled over. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Let’s fetch the police,” she said to Kaki. “What did this nut case do?”
 “Whose baby is this?” Kaki spoke loudly, even though Bokey Ba wasn’t hard of hearing. “Tell me, where did you get it?” She gingerly reached over and lifted the shawl. “It’s a boy,” she whispered. “And barely a few months old. Bokey Ba, what are you doing with this baby?”
 Bokey Ba tried to form the words, but they didn’t come. It had literally been months since he’d talked to anyone. He pointed behind him, toward Tundikhel.
 “Where’s the baby’s mother?”
 Bokey Ba shrugged, cleared his throat, and managed to hoarsely say, “Don’t know.”
 “So why bring him here?” Vaishali said. “Take him back. What can we do?”
 “Wait,” Kaki told her. “Let me look.”
 Bokey Ba handed her the baby, and thinking that his job was done, he stood and was about to leave when Kaki yelled at him, “Where are you going? Sit!”
 Bokey Ba sat on his haunches. Kaki inspected the baby’s face, running her fingers over it. “He seems healthy enough.” The baby began to cry again, and she said, “Maybe he’s hungry.” Her maternal instinct made her want to open her blouse and let the baby feed on her breasts, but she realized how foolish that was: a dry woman past middle age in a crowded street, feeding a baby she didn’t know. So she requested that Vaishali mind her corn station as she and Bokey Ba looked for the baby’s mother.
 For the rest of the morning, Kaki and Bokey Ba roamed the area in search of someone who’d claim the baby. Kaki walked in front, clutching the baby to her chest, already feeling protective. She puckered her lips in kisses at him whenever he cried. They circled Rani Pokhari, where the mother’s body now rested at the bottom of the pond. The pond was said to be haunted at night by ghosts of those who’d committed suicide in its waters and those who had been repeatedly dunked, as state punishment, until they could no longer breathe.
 But for restless students at Tri-Chandra College, the sight of the pond had a calming effect as they skipped classes and spent hours on the roof, smoking, discussing politics. It had been more than two years since King M’s coup, and he showed no sign of returning power to the elected officials.
 Bokey Ba and Kaki entered the grounds of Tri-Chandra College, both of them looking out of place among the college students loitering on the lawn and drinking tea; then the two continued on to the premises of the Ghantaghar clock tower and finally returned to the khari tree on the parade ground, where Bokey Ba slept at night. The baby hadn’t stopped crying all morning, so Kaki handed him to Bokey Ba and went to fetch some milk. Bokey Ba sat on the platform surrounding the tree, holding the infant, afraid to look at his face, and the baby’s cry rang out across the field, attracting the attention of some of the regulars. A small crowd formed around Bokey Ba, hazarding guesses as to what had transpired: the old man had stolen the baby from a rich merchant; the baby was Bokey Ba’s own child, born from the womb of an old prostitute. Stoically, Bokey Ba waited in silence for Kaki, who arrived after some delay. She’d had to appeal to a neighbor of hers to lend her a bottle and some warm milk.
 Kaki shooed the crowd away. “Here, feed him,” she said, handing the bottle to the old man, who shook his head. “You found him,” she insisted. “You feed him.” He took the warm bottle from her and inserted the nipple into the baby’s mouth, and he sucked hungrily. His eyes explored Bokey Ba’s face as he drank. Soon the bottle was empty, and the baby began to bawl once more. When Bokey Ba looked helplessly at Kaki, she laughed. “Rock him, sing to him. He’s yours now.”
 And before Bokey Ba could say anything, she traversed the field to her corn station, where Vaishali was battling the coal embers and complaining that the smoke was stinging her eyes. “This is not easy work,” she told Kaki, who took over.
 Kaki grilled corncobs on the sidewalk and sold them at one suka apiece. Early in the morning she’d remove, one by one, the outer husks from corn she had purchased from a farmer. Around eight o’clock, once the area began to thicken with people, she’d light her earthenware stove, a makal, which was filled with pieces of coal. She’d first grill the corn over an open fire, then cook it further in coal embers, letting the heat perform its magic and using her fingers, which were callused and thick, to turn the cobs occasionally. This was a good spot to do business. The bus stop stood across the street, at the entrance to Tundikhel. The marketplace of Asan was only a furlong away, to the right, and the girls’ college, Padma Kanya, was up the street, to the east. The girls from Padma Kanya College especially loved Kaki’s corn, which she dabbed with a special paste of green chutney that teased, tickled, then shot flames in the mouth, making her customers go “Shooooo” and “Shaaaaaa.” The two other corn sellers in the area, one stationed at the mouth of Asan and the other close to the Muslim enclave near the Ghantaghar clock tower, didn’t command as large a clientele as Kaki did. Her advantage was that chutney, and though the two other corn sellers had tried to pry the recipe from her, Kaki kept it a secret and made her chutney at home.

The following week, Kaki and Bokey Ba took the baby to the Bal Ashram orphanage in Naxal. The lady who ran it told them that no space was available and that the government had decreed that only those orphans who had absolutely no one to take care of them could be accepted. The woman insinuated that she didn’t believe Kaki’s story, that perhaps the baby was a product of her illegitimate union with the homeless man with the goatee.
 Bokey Ba held the baby in his arms as he and Kaki walked all the way back to Tundikhel in the afternoon sun. They passed the back of the old royal palace in Tangal. Nearby, in the field where the washer people, the dhobis, worked, clothes hung from ropes and fluttered in the wind. Bokey Ba suddenly stopped. Before Kaki knew what was happening, he tightened his grip on the baby with his right arm, and with his left hand he clawed at the wall, feeling for a crack he could grasp to hoist himself up. But the royal wall was covered with moss, and his fingers kept slipping. The baby slid from his grip. Had Kaki’s arm not shot out and caught the baby’s leg, the young thing would have crashed headfirst to the ground, maybe broken his neck. “Have you gone insane? What do you think—this orphan is really a king?” She scolded the old man and held the baby close to her chest as they resumed their walk.
 Dark, monstrous clouds had gathered in the sky. Kaki knew that the monsoon season was terribly difficult for Bokey Ba. The branches of the khari tree didn’t block the lashes of rain, which slanted in under it; throughout the night the poor man clasped his knees, wet and shivering. Sometimes he slipped in through the hole in the gate of Bir Hospital nearby and waited out the downpour under the awning of its main entrance, in the company of several street dogs. But the baby couldn’t survive that; he needed better shelter against the monsoons.
 As though sensing Kaki’s thoughts, Bokey Ba left her with the baby once they reached Rani Pokhari; he hurried to cross the street. She ran after him, the baby held tight against her chest. “Bokey Ba, you can’t do this!” Bokey Ba stopped at the edge of Tundikhel, faced her, and pointed to the sky. Rain began to fall, slowly at first, then in a torrent. They ran into Tundikhel and sought shelter under a tree. “This baby isn’t mine,” Kaki said, and Bokey Ba angrily gestured, pointing to her chest, then his, possibly to indicate that he wasn’t a woman and wasn’t properly equipped. Kaki laughed. By this time she’d learned to grasp at least some of the meaning of his strange, at times wild, hand gestures. “My chest is all shriveled up and useless,” she told him. “There’s no milk.”
 Bokey Ba repeatedly jabbed his finger toward the Mahabouddha area.
 “I can’t take him home,” Kaki said. “I’m lucky my son and daughter-in-law let me live with them at all. Look, I have to prepare my own food, on a separate stove, with money earned from selling corn. I have to sleep in the chhindi under the stairs. If I take this baby there, my son will simply kick me out—all he needs is an excuse. Then where will I be? Where will the baby be?”
 Bokey Ba hung his head. Kaki looked at the old man: his nose was running, and small drops fell on his beard; he could hardly appear more defeated. She looked at the baby, who was moving his mouth as he waved his small arm at her. A surge of maternal love rose in her chest, and her eyes filled with tears. This baby needed her more than she needed her son and his wife. Kaki placed her free hand on Bokey Ba’s arm. “Look, even though I can’t keep the baby, I’ll help you in any way I can. First, we’ll have to build a shelter. Otherwise this baby will die in the rain. I’ll do whatever I can for him during the day, even while I’m selling my corn, and between you and me, we can take care of him.”
 Kaki thought that the baby needed a name, not just “bachcha,” kid, as she and Vaishali called him now. But she couldn’t think of any, except the most generic ones: Ram, Shyam, Bharat, Hari. Then she remembered Bokey Ba’s failed attempt at dumping the baby inside the royal palace, and she laughed. The boy’s name would be Raja, the king.
 Before long, Raja and Bokey Ba slept under a blue tarp that Kaki helped set up on the northern edge of Tundikhel, across the street from her corn station. The police knew the two slept there, but they didn’t do anything about it. To pursue the matter would involve taking the old man to the station in Hanuman Dhoka and writing a report, which was just too much work.
More than a year passed, and under the blue tarp Raja began to grow. Bokey Ba wiped the child’s bottom with strips of cloth that Kaki had torn from an old dhoti and fed him milk from the bottle that Kaki replenished. Throughout the day Kaki crossed the street to make sure that everything was all right, and when Raja climbed onto her lap and began to play with her nose, she found it hard to leave. “If I stay here to play with you, how will I earn my living?” she chided the boy, who had begun to call her “Ka Ka Ka.” Once, for a whole week Raja was sick with a hacking, barking cough, and Kaki had to steal cold syrup and tablets from her son’s drawer, to give to the boy. Kaki also took the child to Shanta Bhawan, to the elderly foreign couple who ran a hospital there, for his dose of worm medicine. She held Raja straddled on her hip as a young nurse, in a startling white cap, poured the medicine down the boy’s throat.
 Kaki and Bokey Ba frequently had to chase Raja as he crawled rapidly across the parade ground to play with the people who relaxed nearby. “What’s his name?” young girls asked, cooing to him. “When is his birthday?” And on this last question Bokey Ba and Kaki were stumped. Kaki surmised that he was nearly two years old, but, growing tired of answering that she didn’t know the exact birth date, she asked Vaishali’s husband, Dindayal, to consult the religious calendar. She then settled on a date in October, the auspicious day on which the great Dashain festival started. And, two weeks later, to commemorate Raja’s second birthday, Kaki performed a puja in the Guheswori Temple; to everyone’s amazement, she offered the goddess a baby goat in sacrifice, asking her to bless her Raja. She joked that the baby goat, had he been allowed to live, would have sported a goatee like Bokey Ba’s.
 One morning soon after, Kaki’s son kicked her out of the house, accusing her of stealing money from under his mattress, which she had done—to pay for the goat. For the rest of the day Kaki roamed the city, carrying all that remained of her belongings. Too weak to gather her bedding in her arms, she’d left it in the courtyard where her son had thrown it. All she had now was a box filled with jewelry and trinkets; a black-and-white photo of her son as a boy, taken by the street photographer in Baghbazar; and a bag crammed with two petticoats, three blouses, and an extra dhoti. She thought about the people she might go to: a friend who’d recently married the brother of her dead husband; a widowed aunt who lived in Bhak-tapur, sweeping the streets and begging from tourists; a man she disliked who’d wanted to marry her, repeatedly claiming that he was moneyed and would give her a good life. But she kept on walking into the bustle of the Juddha Sadak Gate. People swarmed around her: a man walking in front of a medicine shop paused to pick his teeth, a young boy on his bicycle zoomed through the crowd on the sidewalk, and people called to one another back and forth across the street, laughing. Movie lovers exited Ranjana Cinema and flooded the streets, squinting as their eyes adjusted to the sunlight; a bawling baby crawled up its mother’s emaciated chest as she held out her dark, skinny hand for alms.
 Kaki could go straight to Rani Pokhari, pick up her makal from Vaishali, who kept it for her overnight, and get to work, pretending that nothing had happened. But something had happened: she no longer had a home.
 In Basantapur, Kaki stood in the middle of the vast courtyard, surrounded by temples. Small statues of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, leaned out from a window. Directly in front of Kaki stood the enormous Maju Deval Temple, its many steps leading up to the phallus in the shrine. A government vehicle slowly passed by, its loudspeaker exhorting citizens to come together as one community for nation building.
 A few drops fell on Kaki, and she looked up and saw dark clouds swelling in the sky. She put down her things and hesitantly stuck out her tongue, tasting the rain. As people scurried about looking for cover, she stood, exhilaration rising within her; her situation no longer seemed that bad at all. For tonight, and perhaps subsequent nights (until the police chased her away), she could find a nook somewhere among these temples to sleep in, an awning under which she could take shelter once darkness claimed the land. She would still sell her corn near Rani Pokhari, but now she wouldn’t have to return home to her family’s constant criticism and condescension. And she could give her undivided attention to Raja. She was meant to take care of the boy, and this jolt of fate she accepted with an ache in her heart.

When he was three years old, Raja sat under the tarp, watching the rain. Lightning streaked the sky. The thunder was so loud that it threatened to crack open the earth. The rain hit hard, and some of it dribbled under the edges of the tarp, wetting the ground beneath it. Bokey Ba was lying in the corner, coughing, with saliva oozing down his chin. “Ba, pani,” said Raja, pointing at the sky. Bokey Ba’s chest heaved; phlegm shot out of his mouth and landed on his shirt. He lifted his head, looked at his spit in the semi-dark of the shelter, and saw streaks of blood. Just then, Kaki appeared, holding a black, beat-up umbrella. “Here, Bokey Ba, drink this,” she said, and handed him a bottle of cough medicine. The old man sat up, lifted his chin, and drank. Kaki noticed the blood and said, “I think we need to take you to the doctor.”
 Bokey Ba shook his head, said something Kaki didn’t understand.
 “You will die here, Bokey Ba,” she said. “Let’s go.” The old man didn’t move, but Kaki was adamant, and soon she had him standing, leaning against her, and the three walked out into the rain, crossed the street, and entered the office building where Vaishali and her husband, Dindayal, lived.
 Kaki had been staying here too since her son kicked her out the year before. The building’s ground floor had housed a printing press, now closed; a legal battle prevented the space from being occupied by another business, though the location, in the heart of the city, was indeed desirable. So Vaishali and Dindayal, with the building owner’s express permission, had been living there comfortably for months, and in return Vaishali acted as custodian for the entire three stories. A restaurant and bar took up the second floor; a tailor’s shop was situated on the third. When she learned that Kaki had been turned out of her son’s house and had been sleeping in the temples, Vaishali had invited her to live there. But now, when Kaki, Raja, and Bokey Ba entered the building together, Vaishali grew alarmed. “I can’t possibly let all three of you sleep here,” she said to Kaki, who found a towel among her belongings and began to wipe Raja’s head and face. Coughing fiercely, Bokey Ba had slumped to the floor against the wall. “The owner will kick all of us out,” Vaishali said. “Then where will Dindayal and I go?”
 Kaki told her that the old man would die if he slept outside that night. Finally, after some persuasion, Vaishali relented.
 The rainstorm raged, and for a long time none of the group could sleep. The wind howled like a pack of wolves, and now and then a loud rattle or clatter sounded from the street as gusts hurled and banged things about. Raja clung to Kaki as he snored. Finally, at around three or four in the morning, the storm subsided, and everyone drifted off.
 In the morning when they awoke, Bokey Ba’s spot in the corner was empty.
 “I’ll keep an eye out for him,” Dindayal said as he got ready for work. Employed as a peon for a merchant who owned several spice and sweets shops in the city, Dindayal rode his boss’s bicycle all day, transferring packets of goods and cash between shops.
 Throughout the day, as Kaki sold corn dabbed with her irresistible green chutney, she remained alert for signs of Bokey Ba. Many young people, especially students, stopped to buy her corn that day. They were on their way to the Supreme Court to listen to a former prime minister, known for his bellicose and eccentric ways, who was expected to defend himself against accusations of treason and sedition. Meanwhile, in his undershirt and underpants, Raja played in the dirt next to Kaki, sometimes crawling at breakneck speed toward other vendors along the street.
 Briefly, Kaki became distracted by a couple of fussy customers; when she looked up, Raja was at the edge of the sidewalk, headed toward a small truck, its engine revving, alongside the street. Kaki shouted Vaishali’s name and, ignoring the money the customers had thrust at her, she rushed toward the boy. Vaishali followed instantly. But Raja was fast, and by the time Kaki reached the three-wheeler truck, the child was in the middle of the street. A few Padma Kanya College girls across the way spotted him and screamed. A small truck swerved to avoid Raja, a Bajaj scooter nearly rammed into him, and Kaki, her heart thudding, hurled herself into the heavy traffic after him.
 One college girl ran and tried to grab the boy. He slipped out of her grasp and soon was at the entrance of Tundikhel. Kaki ran at full speed after him, the object of honks and drivers’ curses as she crossed the street. But the boy was already inside, near the shelter where he’d been living for the past few months. There he stopped, staring wide-eyed at the tarp. It had been ripped by the storm; the poles had buckled under the strong winds. “Ba, Ba?” he asked.
 Kaki stopped to breathe, her chest heaving. “You’ll be the death of me,” she told him.
 “Where is Ba?” he asked.
 His clear speech startled her, and she responded as if he were an adult. “I don’t know. Maybe he ran away. Let’s go.” She lifted him. He felt heavier, and his face now seemed more solemn. As she approached the sidewalk, Kaki’s eyes fell upon an object glistening on the ground. She bent to pick it up. It was a button; it featured a photo of a balding man with small eyes, a foreigner. “Here,” she said, handing it to Raja. The Padma Kanya girls who’d been alarmed over Raja now congregated around him, touching him, reprimanding him. One of them spotted the button in his palm and said, “Where did you get this Mao button? Thinking about becoming a communist?” The girls laughed. Later in the day, Kaki noticed a student sporting the same button, with the balding man’s broad face. The word communist came to her, and although she didn’t know what kind of people were communists, something about the way the Padma Kanya girl had uttered the term made Kaki uncomfortable. Maybe Mao was a rabble-rouser, connected to the conspiracy against the king.
 During the night when Raja slept, Kaki stole the Mao button from under his pillow and threw it out the door. It rolled down the sidewalk, then clanked into a gutter, where it vanished.

Bokey Ba didn’t return to the building that night, or the next night, or the next week. Kaki cursed the old man. He couldn’t wait to leave, she fumed to herself, as she fanned the coals in her makal. But as weeks passed and it became obvious that Bokey Ba was gone forever, Kaki’s resentment was replaced by a slow, sweet happiness, which enveloped her whenever she looked at Raja.

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