Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kunzang Choden's "The Circle of Karma": Book Review

This 2005 novel, the first in English by a Bhutanese woman, tells over forty years the story of Tsomo. At fifteen, in the remote region of Kurtai, she soon falls in love with another woman's husband. This leads soon to pregnancy, but the results spur her not to a happy marriage, but family strife. She flees to pound stones to pave the first roads across the kingdom, putting this section somewhere about ten years after the Chinese suppression of Tibet. Years aren't mentioned; the novel unfolds in an indirect narration by Tsomo, who finds unhappiness often, and exiles herself to India.

It limits the range of her thoughts. Choden chooses a stolid, often nearly static, representation of her reflections. "She thought of her chipped enamel cup and decided to buy a nice white cup. Why should she drink out of a chipped cup. Mother would have been appalled. She believed chipped utensils brought bad fortune. Tsomo did not need any more bad fortune." (115)

Such a choice, while adding verisimilitude, slows its pace. Not much happens for long stretches, as it may in anyone's real life, but readers may find this stolid expression of a traditional woman's mentality a welcome alternative to the romanticized mindset applied to Bhutan (more often than India's) natives. After Tsomo leaves for the capital, Thimphu, to labor on the road south to India, she tells her similarly suffering friend: "Our stories are so similar and yet so different. Everything happened because we are women. You loved a man and suffered. I hated the man and suffered." (109)

Bad fortune follows her, but she realizes that she is complicit in perpetuating suffering, the circle of karma. "Women internalized their problems and grief and believed that they were all at fault. Women were the thieves, stealing husbands from each other, living in suspicion and hate." (271) She vows to reform her life and seek a better path. As a woman, she is already considered without the merit necessary to find enlightenment on her own, but she longs to be a nun. She cannot read or write, and her second marriage to a feckless would-be lay monk falters, but strengthens her series of pilgrimages to holy sites once she settles in Kalimpong (in India's former Buddhist principality of Sikkim) to weave and support herself, while she seeks a cure for her distended belly, her "cursed karmic illness."

By the story's end, surviving brutality, poverty, betrayal, and abuse at the hands of men, she finds fulfillment through her religious quest. Buddhism here is integrated into her life so thoroughly that it is shown usually as natural, as a source of guidance and not suppression. Her guru Rinpoche tells her: "Remember only those moments of harmony." These are few and far between for great stretches of Tsomo's life, but Choden tries to realistically align her own power to control her destiny as much as she can. Returning to a changed Bhutan, where the capital hosts many women who have been unmoored from customary roles in villages, Tsomo now stands for a generation caught between the timeless roles to which religion and rulers and husbands have relegated them, and their own confrontations with modernity and the declining control of the monasteries and lords over women.

P.S. You can learn more about Choden and her restoration of her family's former feudal estate at Ogyen Choling in the east in "Bhutan Heartland," reviewed by me Dec. 2012. Amazon US 12-8-12)

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