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Upadhyay, Samrat

Upadhyay, Samrat

PERSONAL: Born in Kathmandu, Nepal; married; wife's name Babita; children: Shahzadi. Education: College of Wooster, B.A.; Ohio University, M.A.; University of Hawaii, Ph.D.; attended St. Xavier's School, Nepal.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, Indiana University, 442 Ballantine Hall, Bloomington, IN 47405-7103. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Writer, novelist, short-story writer, and educator. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, creative writing professor. Previously taught English at Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, OH, in Saudi Arabia, and at Kathmandu University.

AWARDS, HONORS: Fiction prize, Ohioana Library Association; Stryker Award, University of Hawaii; Academy of American Poets prize; Whiting Award, 2001, for Arresting God in Kathmandu; New York Times notable book of the year, 2003, and Kiriyama Prize finalist, 2004, both for The Guru of Love; Frank O'Connor International Short Story competition finalist.

WRITINGS:

Arresting God in Kathmandu (short stories), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.

The Guru of Love (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2003.

The Royal Ghosts (short stories), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2006.

Contributor of stories to anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 1999, edited by Amy Tan; Scribner's Best of the Fiction Workshops 1999; and Writing in the Stepmother Tongue, edited by Josip Novakovich and Robert Shapard.

Contributor to periodicals, including the Kathmandu Post, North Dakota Quarterly, Chelsea, Indiana Review, Green Mountains Review, and Confrontation. Editor of a special issue on contemporary Nepalese literature for Manoa. Hawaii Review, former fiction editor; Nepal Travelers, former editor. Author's works have been translated into French and Greek.

SIDELIGHTS: With his first collection of short stories, Arresting God in Kathmandu, Samrat Upadhyay gained notice as a skilled commentator on the universal human condition and as the first Nepalese author writing in English to be published in the West. Critics were impressed by the subtle manner with which he presents the troubles of ordinary people who live in a place perceived to be extraordinary by outsiders. Upadhyay almost exclusively writes about his homeland of Nepal, but he now lives and works in the United States. He has been a professor at Baldwin-Wallace College, where he taught creative writing and English literature, and is currently a professor of creative writing at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. As Upadhyay has pointed out, English is not widely known in Nepal, and whereas writers from former British colonies such as India often write in English, he was exceptionally privileged to study the language at a Jesuit school and to attend college abroad. Upadhyay has said that he cannot imagine setting his stories anywhere but in Nepal. He also hopes to help familiarize Western readers with the work of other Nepalese writers.

In an interview with Nitish S. Rele for Indya.com, Upadhyay stated: "The book reflects my obsession with the intimate lives of the inhabitants of Kathmandu, a city that's mostly exoticized in Western literature and popular media…. I am interested in deconstructing the myth that surrounds the people of Kathmandu, and by extension, the people of Nepal." Thus, while cultural elements such as arranged marriages and the caste system may be foreign to Western readers, the subjects of marital infidelity and parents trying to control adult children will be familiar. The stories also show how global cultural influences—in the form of foreigners entering Nepalese society, Nepalese traveling around the world, and the media—are impacting modern life in Kathmandu.

The nine stories collected in Arresting God in Kathmandu were written over a period of ten years. Marriages are central to Upadhyay's stories. Some address the convention of arranged marriages, including "The Limping Bride." In this story, a widower hopes to reform his alcoholic son, but instead creates a tangled situation where his son is humiliated by his wife's hobbling, he finds himself attracted to the woman, and the young wife takes charge of them both. Infidelity is treated in stories such as "Deepak Misra's Secretary," in which an accountant who is estranged from his American wife seeks to seduce his homely secretary. Two unsatisfactory marriages are viewed in "The Room Next Door," a tale about a mother who is ashamed of her unwed and pregnant daughter. Conventions are upheld when the daughter marries an unemployed simpleton, but the mother ends up reluctantly returning to her husband's bed so that room can be made in her house for her daughter and son-in-law.

Reviewers praised Upadhyay's work in Arresting God in Kathmandu. In a review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Tamara Straus commented that Upadhyay's "startlingly good" stories feature a style that reminded her of Anton Chekhov. "Like Chekhov, he constructs an ordinary incident and sends his characters on a kaleidoscopic journey of emotions through it, with the result that their inner and outer worlds are exposed," she explained. Noting that, while the collection's title might create other expectations, Elizabeth Roca commented in the Washington Post that the book's "primary themes are secular and ruefully familiar." Roca admired the way in which Upadhyay "combines exact details of plot and setting with a reflective tone … his stories have been burnished until they glow with visual and emotional precision."

In an article for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Susan Salter Reynolds found that the collection "provides an insight into Nepalese culture at home and abroad," especially the issue of social classes. Other reviewers found it notable that such subjects do not overshadow more familiar elements. A Publishers Weekly critic stated: "Those seeking the exoticism so often found in contemporary Indian fiction won't find it here…. In an assured and subtle manner, Upadhyay anchors small yet potent epiphanies." In a review for Booklist, Donna Seaman judged that "it's really the universal inner realm and the mysterious state of marriage that [Upadhyay] illuminates so marvelously" in his "polished, transfixing stories."

Still other reviewers were impressed by the complexity of Upadhyay's stories. Writing for the Library Journal, Shirley N. Quan touched on the author's deft portrayal of Nepalese culture, individual personalities, and the universal human condition. She concluded that all the stories "leave the reader with much food for thought." Critic Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times that the stories manage to "bring us into contact with a world that is somehow both very far away and very familiar." Bernstein described the stories as showing that the people of Kathmandu are beset by the same temptations and weaknesses found in other places, despite its idealized image. "There is a deceptive simplicity to all of these stories, just as there is a deceptive simplicity to Katmandu, whose appearance of traditional piety is … a mask behind which all manner of complications flourish," he noted. Bernstein advised that the author's gentle touch merit careful reading, because "interior events occur like tumblers falling in a lock, so quietly and inconspicuously that we almost don't notice them."

The Guru of Love is Upadhyay's "utterly absorbing first novel," commented Donna Seaman in Booklist. Ramchandra is a math teacher in Kathmandu. His job, however, pays very poorly, and he has to tutor additional students in his off hours for additional money to support his wife, Goma, and their two teenaged children. Goma, gentle and good-natured, endures, but she was once a member of a well-off family, and her parents are bitterly, openly critical of Ramchandra and his inability to provide well for his family. For his part, Ramchandra hopes to save enough money to build a house so that he and his family can move out of their small apartment. Unexpectedly, a source of hope enters Ramchandra's dreary life in the form of Malati, a teenage unwed mother who comes to him for math tutoring. Malati is beautiful but very poor, and to his great surprise, Ramchandra abandons his former disciplined demeanor and falls deeply in love with the young woman. Straightforward and honest, he admits the affair to Goma, but also tells her he intends to keep seeing Malati. The consequences to his marriage are devastating, as Goma gathers up the children and leaves Ramchandra behind. Soon, however, the dutiful Goma returns with an apparent change of heart; she tells Ramchandra that Malati can move into the household with her child and may sleep with him in his bed, while Goma will sleep with the children. Ramchandra agrees to this odd arrangement, but as time goes on, he begins to feel increasing guilt. Worse, he observes his teenage daughter "succumbing to the same dangerous passion that undid him, and he is powerless to stop her," noted Bryan Walsh in Time International. "Fate, fueled by misguided desire, carries the characters on its wheel, through good and ill and back again," Walsh continued. "Nothing, Upadhyay suggests with his crisp yet melancholy words, is ever really possessed, yet nothing—not even love—is ever truly lost."

"One experiences this book as Ramchandra experiences his life: not at a reflective distance but swept away by it," commented a Publishers Weekly critic. Throughout the novel, Upadhyay displays an "astonishing eye for the telling detail, coupled with a rivetingly precise and graceful style," commented Fred Leebron in Ploughshares. He "applies his cool hand to universal themes like money worries, infidelity and evil mothers-in-law. He tells his story well—even if we have heard it before," commented Walsh. Seaman commented favorably on Upadhyay's "lucent and tender storytelling," while Leebron concluded that The Guru of Love is a "marvelous book."

With The Royal Ghosts, Upadhyay's second collection of short stories, the author "goes beyond conflict to reveal Nepal's human face," remarked Time International reviewer Austin Ramzy. The book's title story uses a real-life tragic event as backdrop, when in 2001 Nepal's Crown Prince Dipendra shot to death his father, King Birendra, and several other members of the royal family in a fit of drunken rage. The death of the royal family sparked a deadly Maoist uprising in the country, and the violent turmoil of this situation also provides a fraught atmosphere for Upadhyay's stories. In "Refugee," Upadhyay looks at issues relating to women's rights and associated issues in Nepal as they affect the life of a war widow. "The Royal Ghosts" depicts a day in the life of a cab driver, on the terrible day that the royal family was murdered. On this same day, the cabbie discovers in a shocking manner that his brother is gay. His reaction defines the limits of his relationship with his brother from that point forward. Student activist Suresh, jailed in "Supreme Pronouncements" for writing editorials critical of the government, finds his safety secondary to the identity of his cellmate: his girlfriend's old boyfriend. An elderly mother finds a gun hidden under the pillow of her mentally ill son in "The Weight of a Gun," and the discovery propels her to extreme measures to save her son. Other stories, including "Father/Daughter" and "Wedding Hero" concern relationships between men and women in a society tightly bound by cultural mores and an inflexible caste system. "In Upadhyay's hands, characters whose lives seem impossibly foreign become intimately familiar," Ramzy observed. "Even when facing the saddest of circumstances, they often find hope in the end. One wishes as much for their troubled country."

"Upadhyay's not-so-simple stories are lucid and often luminous," remarked a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Upadhyay "writes about his middle-class Nepalese characters with humor and compassion," exploring the conflicts that arise from the tension between tradition and modern life, and between family obligations and social desires, noted Elsa Dixler in the New York Times Book Review. Library Journal reviewer Shirley N. Quan commented that "each story is multifaceted, and much can be gleaned in a single reading," but also noted that the stories bear careful rereading by those who want to "appreciate fully the intricacies" of Upadhyay's work.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of Arresting God in Kathmandu, p. 2093; November 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of The Guru of Love, p. 476; February 1, 2006, Donna Seaman, review of The Royal Ghosts, p. 31.

Entertainment Weekly, February 14, 2003, review of The Guru of Love, p. 76.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of The Guru of Love, p. 1654; December 1, 2005, review of The Royal Ghosts, p. 1255.

Library Journal, July, 2001, Shirley N. Quan, review of Arresting God in Kathmandu, p. 128; December 1, 2005, Shirley N. Quan, review of The Royal Ghosts, p. 120.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 12, 2001, Susan Salter Reynolds, "Discoveries," p. 11.

New York Times, August 24, 2001, Richard Bernstein, "In Nepal, Too, Desire Defies Modern Times," p. E37.

New York Times Book Review, March 5, 2006, Elsa Dixler, "Fiction Chronicle," review of The Royal Ghosts.

Ploughshares, spring, 2003, Fred Leebron, review of The Guru of Love, p. 205.

Publishers Weekly, July 30, 2001, review of Arresting God in Kathmandu, p. 62; November 18, 2002, review of The Guru of Love, p. 42; December 19, 2005, review of The Royal Ghosts, p. 39.

San Francisco Chronicle, August 26, 2001, Tamara Straus, "Nepali Writer's Stories of Life and Love Speak to Common Truths."

Time International, March 17, 2003, Bryan Walsh, "Clueless in Kathmandu: A Nepali Math Teacher Suffers a Twisted Midlife Crisis in Samrat Upadhyay's Novel, The Guru of Love," p. 57; May 29, 2006, Austin Ramzy, "Man of the People," review of The Royal Ghosts, p. 60.

Washington Post, August 26, 2001, Elizabeth Roca, "From Kathmandu to Kenya, International Tales of Tradition, Upheaval and Loss," p. BW09.

ONLINE

DesiJournal.com, http://www.desijournal.com/ (January 24, 2003), Poomima Apte, review of The Guru of Love,

Hackwriters.com, http://www.hackwriters.com/ (January 10, 2007), Charlie Dickinson, review of The Guru of Love.

Indiana University Web site, http://www.indiana.edu/ (January 10, 2007), biography of Samrat Upadhyay.

Indya.com, http://news.indya.com/ (August 14, 2001), Nitish S. Rele, "Samrat Upadhyay: Arresting God and Readers in Kathmandu."

Middle Stage Web log, http://middlestage.blogspot.com/ (February 19, 2006), review of The Royal Ghosts; (May 6, 2006), "The Books Interview: Samrat Upadhyay."

OhMyNews.com, http://www.ohmynews.com/ (January 10, 2007), "Nepali Writer Longlisted for Irish Prize," profile of Samrat Upadhyay.

Online NewsHour, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (April 25, 2006), Margaret Warner, "Mixed Blessings in Nepal," transcript of television interview with Samrat Upadhyay.

Samudaya.org, http://www.samudaya.org/ (February, 2006), interview with Samrat Upadhyay.

Sepia Mutiny Web log, http://www.sepiamutiny.com/ (May 4, 2006), "Samrat Upadhyay and the Nepali Present Tense Fiction," interview with Samrat Upadhyay.

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