This is the story of Pema Tsomo, who grows up in a village in Bhutan. When she is born, the astrologer tells her mother that the child will be restless, always wanting to travel. But, her mother thinks, where can a girl go? Women didn’t leave their homes; they stayed and took care of their families.
Because she is a girl, she does not learn to read and write. When she asks her father, a scholar, to teach her, he dismisses her—what use would a girl have for learning? Better that she should learn to weave and cook. After all, she is only a woman, a mantra that is repeated so often that she starts to believe it. But there is something inside her that rebels against the limitations put on her. If her father won’t teach her, then she will listen to him teach the local boys through a crack, learning the prayers they recite.
Tsomo’s beloved mother dies when she is still a girl. She is devastated but has no time to grieve. She is thrust into the role of a mother to her siblings. “[H]er childhood feels like many lifetimes ago. … Tsomo has not cried once since Mother died, but she is full of tears. She feels their weight inside her but they will not come out. Instead they grow into an icy and painful lump that has lodged itself somewhere between her chest and her stomach.”
Tsomo decides to go to Trongsa and light butter lamps for her mother’s first death anniversary. On her way she meets other travellers, one of whom is a young man called Wangchen with whom she has an affair. When Tsomo becomes pregnant, Wangchen moves in with her (formal marriages are not part of the rural customs). But the child is stillborn and Tsomo is left with a swollen belly that will not disappear. Wangchen turns to Tsomo’s younger sister. Tsomo is furious and leaves the house for good.
The book follows her as she travels, first through Bhutan where she labours on the new roads, then to India and Nepal, where she goes on pilgrimages, until, as an old woman, she returns to Bhutan. Throughout her life, from when she was a young girl, she feels a pull towards religion but it is only when she is older that she is able to become a Buddhist nun.
Karma is central to the story: people’s deeds in past lives shape the way their present life turns out: “the results of people’s actions accumulated and manifested themselves over many lifetimes”. Tsomo blames her misfortunes on her sins in her previous lives and hopes that by living well in this life she will be reborn as a man.
Kunzang Choden laces the story with humour. The villagers believe that illness is the result of spirits taking over a person’s body. The way to coax them out is by offering them food, tempting them with alluring descriptions: “high quality rice from the warm sub-tropics with good yak meat from the high pastures”. It usually works, and the spirits leave. But Tsomo thinks that the spirits must be stupid and gullible: “The rice was ordinary, the meat was any old stringy piece”.
The book contrasts the traditional ways of the Bhutanese with the modernization of the country taking place in the mid-20th century. I found the book a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the ordinary people of Bhutan. Women seem to have some freedom: virginity is not an issue, and they are free to pick their mates. However, that doesn’t mean they are treated as equals.
Tsomo is not like the other women: she has a strong independent streak in her, which leads her to see and experience more than most of her peers would. She lives for a while with a feckless man, more to avoid loneliness than actual affection. But through him, she meets a Rimpoche who understands and watches over her and is central to her finding her path as a nun. Along the way, she creates strong bonds with the women she meets on her journeys.
Choden’s descriptions are so vivid that I felt I was there. Tsomo is in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained nirvana.
“The pinnacle of the stupa seemed to pierce the sky above. She felt herself lifted into the clouds. All around people were praying, prostrating and circumambulating. Monks and nuns sat in meditation. The Bodhi tree stood there, weighty with age and lively with the colourful flags that adorned it. There was an awesome sense of piety. The feeling was heightened by hundreds of flickering butter lamps and the sweet smell of incense that hung in the air. Tsomo joined the crowds of pilgrims who spilled into the area around the chorten and the tree. She felt awed and uplifted by the presence of the Buddha.”
The Circle of Karma is the first novel by a woman Bhutanese writer to be published in English. I hope there will be many more.
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 An honorific term for a Buddhist priest.