Raja and Nilu are fated to fall in love. They’ve both been abandoned—he through his mother’s suicide in the public pond, she through her mother’s constant escape into drink. He has grown up on the streets, she in a crumbling mansion. And yet they find each other again and again. First, when they are children; then, when they are young lovers; and finally, after they both fear they have lost their marriages. But the events of the past, even those we are ignorant of, inevitably haunt the present. And Raja and Nilu’s story is not only their own. Using Nepal’s political upheavals as a backdrop to demonstrate how we are irreparably connected to past and home, Buddha’s Orphans traces the roots of this love story and follows its growth—through time, 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.
1. Describe the circumstances under which Kaki first hears the word “communist.” How does she react? How do the struggles among royalty, parliament, and the communist rebels affect the lives of the people in this novel?
2. Why doesn’t Kaki want Raja to call Jamuna “Mummy?” Ganga Da says, “It’s just a word” (p. 36). Identify the meaning of other names in the novel. How do the names reflect the personalities or fates of their bearers?
3. Discuss the meaning of motherhood as expressed throughout this novel. Is blood alone the deciding factor in what makes a woman a mother? Why or why not?
4. Kaki has nightmares about women coming to claim Raja as their son, and ironically the woman who does take him away is no more Raja’s mother than Kaki—perhaps less so. What other dreams or nightmares in this novel are true? Consider how the author blends reality with a kind of magic and share what effect this had on your reading experience.
5. Do you sympathize with Ganga Da at all? How do you feel about what he did? There are few truly happy endings in this novel. Did you find the author’s portrayal of this community of people realistic? Why or why not?
6. When she gets suspended, Nilu fears being expelled permanently from St. Augustine’s, despite her issues with the school’s administration. “It seemed unthinkable to relinquish the many things she loved about it,” the narrator tells us (p. 95). And yet she goes through a lot of trouble to find Raja and then enroll in the Jagadamba school. Why now, suddenly? Why does she struggle to hide her identity and their shared past from Raja?
7. Ganga Da is heartbroken by Nilu and Raja’s eschewing of a traditional wedding. More importantly, their community assumes they’re just living together, an abhorrent situation for the adults of their era. What influences their decision to elope, knowing at least one side of the family would warmly welcome a conventional union, and knowing the damage to their reputations could have been avoided?
8. Nilu has a deep well of sympathy for Raja that never seems to empty throughout their life together. “Poor Raja, how he suffers” seems to be her lament. Is their dynamic an expression of the depth of Nilu’s love, or is she wrong to coddle him so? Does Raja appreciate all Nilu does for him?
9. Through just a couple of chapters, the author weaves Raja’s mother’s story into the present lives of these characters. Even though they are all ignorant of the facts of this story, it seems to haunt them. Identify the ways Mohini’s unknown story affects various characters in this book.
10. The relationships in this novel are anything but simple. Identify and discuss some of the dynamics among husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends. How different are these relationships than the ones you’re used to?
11. Describe the elements of Nepalese culture portrayed in the book and compare them to the culture you were raised in. How different does a culture have to be from our own to make us lose sight of those most basic elements of humanness that we have in common?
12. When Ranjana disappeared, what did you suspect? Were you surprised to learn she was pregnant? Why does she refuse to talk about what happened to her? Compare and contrast her story with Mohini’s.
13. The author sometimes slips forward many years in time. How does this affect your reading experience? How do you think an author decides which parts of a person’s life are worth telling and which can be skipped over?
14. What did you think of the way Upadhyay ends the novel? How does Ranjana’s acceptance back into her family despite her transgressions ultimately lead to Raja’s return to the fervor of his youth?
15. On page 254, Nilu prays for Kaki’s soul to find peace. “She’s one of your own children, Lord Buddha,” Nilu says. What does she mean by this? Who are Buddha’s orphans and why did the author chose this title?
© 2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Ally Peltier.