Back to basics or in other words back to books from remote places that only a few have thought about reading and only a few are planning to read in the future. Which is a shame, of course. My latest conquest comes from Bhutan in the form of a woman’s journey from a poor and uneducated village girl to a well-respected religious woman. The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden is notable for it was the first novel to be written in English by a woman in the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan. As with most of the countries from that part of the world, I knew next to nothing about Bhutan. However, I was in for a big surprise as to how underdeveloped the country was in the 1950s and how uneducated and repressed women were.
The story follows the simple and uneventful life of Tsomo – the uneducated daughter of a priest in some unnamed village of Bhutan, who dreams of studying religion alongside her brothers. Even though it’s the 1950s and Bhutan is supposedly in the process of government regulated modernization, Tsomo’s place is as far away as possible from the books and as close as possible to the kitchen. The young girl attempts to follow in her mother steps and to be a good housewife and wife, but her heart aims at higher achievements. As we all know, tragedy never travels alone so when her mother dies, her husband leaves her and she has a miscarriage, Tsomo is forced to leave the safety of her home for other adventures. Her mysterious illness makes her unattractive to men, which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. Working various jobs and travelling throughout Bhutan and India, Tsomo begins to understand more about herself as well as more about repressed women in general. The relationships she forms with other women in a similar situation as herself paint a picture of an entire generation of socially and politically suppressed females, who struggle to position themselves in the world.
The novel follows easily with a solid and nearly static representation of Tsomo’s experiences. The events unravel slowly, a bit like life itself and the language is far from exceptional. Yet, the power of The Circle of Karma lies not only in its revolutionary nature but also in its attempt to introduce the rest of the world to the ritual and rural life of 20 century Bhutan. The traditional gender roles, in which women are regarded as inferior to men, begin to change as men start gaining more economic power and new forms of sexism emerge. In the turbulence of these times Tsomo encounters more problems and betrayals, which prompt her to attribute all of her misfortunes to her bad karma. And indeed, she begins her life by stealing another woman’s husband only to find the same thing happening to her. And yet, all of her life she has dreamed of being involved with religion and her slow and rather painful journey finally renders her that dream.
In terms of literary qualities The Circle of Karma has little to offer. But in terms of quantity, it is a brutal and honest account of what it really means to be born deprived of any opportunity for personal development and of any chance to follow your dreams.