Rooted in the soil and earth
ANNA SUJATHA MATHAI
The Circle of Karma: A Novel, Kunzang Choden, Zubaan/ Penguin, Rs. 295.
THIS is Bhutanese writer Kunzang Choden's first novel. Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan, collaborating with Penguin, has launched her series with this title. For most Indians, this is an unfamiliar culture, and opens up a new world.
Set in Bhutan, moving to such places as Siliguri, Kalimpong, Thimphu, Nepal, with a Buddhist background, it is a simple story, almost old-fashioned in its telling. No literary gimmicks here, it is rooted in the soil and earth of an age-old culture.
Simple village girl
The story of Tsomo is about a simple illiterate village girl, who has always passionately longed for religious knowledge. It is denied to her, as it is not considered the domain of women.
This is a moving feminist testimony of a woman who learns painfully to stand on her own, as all the human relationships she yearns for, and depends on, are torn from her.
As a child, an astrologer had told Tsomo's mother that her daughter would be restless, always wanting to travel. "Where is the furthest I can travel to?" Tsomo asks her mother, who teasingly replies: "Where? I don't know. Where can a girl travel to? Perhaps as far North as Tibet, and as far South as India."
While her brothers are given a religious education, she is denied what her whole soul longs for. She wonders how girls would ever accumulate more merit for their next life, if they were not taught religion. Other women have surrendered to the inevitable humiliations of the family, and society. Not Tsomo.
Descriptions of the harvesting, the religious rituals, the death of her mother in childbirth, and the birth of her friend Chimme's baby, are memorable, and take on an almost classical quality.
Tsomo lives through two terrible marriages. In the first, she finds her husband in bed with her sister! Fleeing from this cruel betrayal, she joins a labour camp on the Thimpu Road. The few coins she earns fuel her longing for vengeance. She would return, having turned the obstacles into opportunities. She would show her own people that she had made something of her life.
It is here that she meets her second husband or partner, a dodgy, unreliable character, very well drawn by Kunzang Choden. In her wanderings with this raffish man, Tsomo meets the Rinpoche, who illuminates and exalts her small and insignificant life. She is able to worship, and share in some of the beautiful rituals that uplift her soul and her life's longing.
She is betrayed again by her second husband, but, years later, after long journeying, after becoming a nun, suffering great privation and humiliation, she emerges with no thought of anger or revenge.
She had been so passionately hurt, she had been almost ready to commit a murder, and cut off the nose of her young and beautiful rival who is to bear her husband's child. Tsomo is able to transcend all this, and even, years later, when she meets her second husband, forgive him.
She has achieved great detachment, great humanity. From her harsh life, she has reaped blessing. She has found that "the only relationship that doesn't change, is the relationship with yourself". Her life has evolved, almost by force, into a transformation, into a sacred pilgrimage.
Kunzang Choden has given us an unforgettable tale of a simple woman's pilgrimage and journey to self-realisation.
Tsomo stands among a long line of feminist heroines, who have found their own light, despite the cruellest betrayals, the harshest discrimination, the darkest road.
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