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Kunzang Choden: The Circle of Karma

This is, apparently the first novel to be published by a female Bhutanese writer and a very fine novel it is. It tells the story of Tsomo who, while not fully based on the author, certainly shares some characteristics and experiences of her creator. It is set in the 1950s, when the Kingdom of Bhutan had started to modernise, but attitudes towards women remained resolutely old-fashioned and, as Choden shows, the lot of women was not generally happy.

We first meet Tsomo as a teenage girl. She is the oldest girl (and third child) of twelve (though several of the children die young). Her mother’s family was comparatively well-off by local standards. Her father was much older than her mother. He was a gomchen (a lay monk) and a very well-respected scholar, who had remained single till middle age and then suddenly decided he needed a wife and selected Tsomo’s mother. He remains remote to his family, immersing himself in his studies as well as providing religious services for the community. Tsomo is clearly an intelligent woman though, as a woman she cannot expect to receive education (unlike her creator, who did). Her father teaches some of the local boys (but not girls) in religious matters and Tsomo hides behind the paper thin walls and listens to the classes. However, she is unable to learn to read and write (and will never do so). Her role, as a woman, is to help in the house and she has to assist her mother, which she does. The background is very religious. Spirits, the idea of karma, fate and destiny all play a key role in their lives. Tsomo’s fate was decreed by an astrologer when she was born. She would always be restless and travelling. At the beginning of the novel, we follow Tsomo’s life as she becomes more and more immersed in household duties, while wishing to follow the religious/scholarly life of her father, a path which, of course, is not open to women. You are a girl. You are different. You learn other things that will make you good woman and a good wife. Learn to cook, weave and all those things. A woman does not need to know how to read and write, her father says to her.

Tsomo is exposed to sex fairly early on. The local boys and girls seem to have rough games which involve the boys exposing the girls’ breasts, while the girls expose the boys’ genitals. When Tsomo’s friend, Chimme, gets pregnant – he had, of course, promised to love her but now denies everything – she realises how hard it is for women. Fortunately for Chimme, a man comes into her life who accepts her and her baby daughter. Tsomo’s mother becomes pregnant again but this time things do not go so well and she dies, without having given birth. Tsomo has to take on some of her mother’s duties, till her father marries again, a woman not much older than Tsomo. When she goes off to the shrine, several days distance, on the first anniversary of her mother’s death, she meets a man, Wangchen, and they have an affair. She gets pregnant and finds out that he is already married with a child. However, he agrees to come to her home after she returns and he does, eventually, come. But things get worse. The baby is still-born and Wangchen starts an affair with Tsomo’s sister. He sees no problem in sleeping with both women. When Kesang, her sister, gives birth to a healthy baby, she knows that it is time to go.

As the astrologer foretold, Tsomo travels around. Her life is not easy. She works breaking up rocks and as a weaver. She finds her brother but, while he is sympathetic, he is more interested in spiritual matters than the life of his sister. A man forces himself on her as a husband and she more or less accepts him but he turns out to be even worse than she imagined and she is glad when he finally goes off with a younger woman. She travels around Bhutan, Nepal and India, meeting people, making friends, working and visiting shrines. Her life is not easy. When things seem to be going right, something goes wrong. She has health issues, with an distended stomach, which is finally cured by Western medicine (it was a tumour). But much of her troubles are caused by men, particularly her husband, though there is no doubt that some men do help her out.

Choden tells an excellent story of a woman who is resilient, intelligent and kind-hearted but is trapped in a male society, where men make the rules to their benefit. This means not only that the women cannot get an education or decent work, but are subordinate to their fathers and husbands, subject to continual sexual abuse, including rape, and, as they tend to be the more impoverished people, subject to the usual problems the poor face, such as frequent eviction and other administrative abuse. There is no question that, with his novel, Bhutan is now on the world literature map.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Penguin