On the way home through the backstreets of Baluwatar I felt someone watching me. He was tall and extremely handsome. Shining blue eyes, marble white skin, rosy cheeks. A Westerner, wearing a Nepali outfit. He fixed his eyes on me, and his smile filled the grey autumn day with vibrant colours. The houses seemed to loose contours, everything turned bright yellow, orange, purple and red. I felt mesmerised, and just walked towards him as if drawn by an unknown power wondering what`s gonna happen next. When I finally reached him, he said with a radiating smile: “Jesus loves you. God bless you.”
I was staying in Kathmandu in June, trying to recover from a difficult Kailash trip. Couldn`t really do much for about three weeks, just stayed in bed, and read books to immerse in different dimensions of reality to ease the pain. One day I decided to leave my confinement, and aimlessly wandered down on Kanti Path jumping like a grasshopper in my flip-flops to avoid the puddles left by the monsoon rain. The sight of the brightly sunlit brick walls and the steaming pavement filled my heart with warmth, while staring at the people selling oddities on the pavement. I wondered about the strange selection of things, the possible market demand for lime juice, mobile cases, ayurvedic herbs, DVDs and knitted baby clothes. I noticed a bookshop I haven’t visited before and saw with surprise a new Samrat Upadhyay book advertised in the shop window. I got suddenly energized by recalling his wonderful collections of short stories I read the year before, ‘The Royal Ghost’ and ‘Arresting God in Kathmandu’. No doubt, I had to buy the book immediately, called ‘Buddha’s Orphans’.
Samrat Upadhyay is a Nepali author, who is teaching creative writing at Indiana University. He is not only a master of character portrayal, but also a sensitive spiritual being, who understands even the tiniest stir of the soul (or whatever different systems of thought call the core of being). I pondered for a while, how to describe ‘Buddha`s Orphans’, and I found that the first sentence of the book says it all: ‘Raja`s mother had abandoned him in the parade ground of Thundikel on a misty morning before the city had awakened, and drowned herself in Rani Pokhari half kilometre north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that floated up to the surface of the pond later in the week.’ This is the axis of the novel, cause and effect. The story follows Raja’s life to see the effects of this moment in the future, and at certain points it goes back to the past to understand the causes which led to the tragedy. We recognize ourselves in the characters replaying roles inherited from our/their parents, get to know their joy and sorrow, and become familiar with the turbulent events of Nepali history, which provide a fascinating historical backdrop. And when I think about it, it is more than just a backdrop. Political movements and events sometimes push to the foreground to change dramatically the life of Raja. Certain characters, feelings and thoughts burnt their mark into my mind, and after reading the book in more or less one go (only the power cut could stop me:) I felt an urge to look around in Kathmandu and take photos of places where the novel was set, secretly hoping that I might bump into the characters of the story. On a sunny afternoon I walked out of Thamel, down to Thundikel and Rani Pokhari lake taking photos of people and places, thinking of Raja`s immeasurable pain of missing his never-seen mother. At the lake I happened to pass by a young boy, who I thought had a striking resemblance of my imagined Raja. He had so much sorrow on his face, he was so still and enveloped in his painful longing, that it occurred to me for a moment that I might have left my own Kathmandu reality and ‘walked into the novel’. I really wanted to take a photo, but I was so afraid to be noticed. Unnecessarily. He just stared at his own train of thoughts, never realizing my presence. It was a perfect moment when time stands still. After another two months in Nepal I went to Beijing, and from time to time I had a look at Raja`s photo and thought of the novel when missing my friends, places, and the relaxed Nepali way of life in general. The smiles exchanged with strangers on the busy alleyways, the moments of joy when the electricity came back after a long blackout, the fresh monsoon rain cooling the heat and sweeping the streets clean. I thought I should send the photo to the author, but it felt so awkward. I`m not the kind of person to write to people I don`t know, I reasoned to myself. But one day just couldn`t reason any longer, found the e-mail address on the internet and sent the photo to Samrat Upadhyay. His reply was so friendly and nice thanking me for the sudden surprise, that after reading his e-mail a few times I sat with the biggest shiny smile on my face for a whole day as if all the suffering and pain of the world was just fiction of ancient times. Must reeeeeeeead!
Today is the first day of the strike in Kathmandu. It was imposed by the Maoists. They said if someone violates the strike rules, keeps his shop open, or drives around, etc., they will ruin the person and his business. People are frightened, everything is closed, Thamel looks like a ghost town in a Thai horror movie. The only cycle rickshaw driver who manifests on the street the moment I step out of the hotel, wants me to pay 300 rupees to get to the nearby Durbar Square, because ‘he is the only means of transport today’, he says, but I bargain it down to 40. It isn`t easy though. I’m hanging around all afternoon on the square, which is a little more busy than other parts of the city, thinking what I should tell my group tomorrow when I start guiding them through Nepali history and vision. Huge temples are facing the old royal palace. Some Kathmanduites are sitting on the stairs around the temples, having a chat or reading the newspaper. Tourists try to squeeze everything into their cameras; fake sadhus come up to them to get hard cash for their photos. Kids are asking for biscuits. Guides want to take me around. As the sun goes down I walk along Freak Street looking for dinner. The hippie movement started here in the 70s, and the atmosphere didn`t change much since then. There is no one in the restaurant, but it’s open. The waiter looks at me trying to figure out my mood. Then selects a tape. Let it be.