Friday, June 19, 2015

Tales in Colour and other stories by Kunzang Choden

Tales in Colour and other stories
Kunzang Choden
Originally 2009, I read 2012
145 pages, short stories, rural life, women's stories
Found: Kolkata Book Fair 2015

This collection of short stories by a female Bhutanese writer gives the reader access to a culture they would never otherwise be able to see: village life in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. The small kingdom perched in the mountains between India and China is famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world, but because of government rules restricting tourists and mandating a $200 USD/day minimum fee for all foreign tourists, it is notoriously difficult to travel in. Kunzang Choden's stories provide a much less expensive way to explore the Kingdom of Bhutan.

"The Woman who Lost her Senses"

In the village, traditional healers practice the Bon religion, a pre-Buddhist tradition that is frowned upon by the Buddhist monks. The healers channel the energy of a deity that is specific to each person, and they need to be taught how to do this properly (by someone with the same deity) or else they go mad. This story tells of a woman who was never taught and displays symptoms of this god-created madness.

"I Won't Ask Mother"

Yeshimo quit school at a very early age to take care of her ill mother and her three brothers. She envies them for being able to get an education and to have prospects in life, and wishes that she could learn more.

"The Advisor"

A woman rejected by her husband becomes the village busybody, giving everyone unsolicited advice- and continues to stick around even after she has died.

"These Things Happen"

Tensions arise between neighboring families when one of the girls is impregnated by a visiting official and blames her boyfriend, who lives next door.

"Look At Her Belly Button"

Tsewang Doma has been spending time in Thimphu with her brother and sister-in-law, escaping from the dull village life to go shopping and watch Hindi movies. She notices that the Hindi movie heroines have their belly buttons pierced, and she decides to stop at nothing before she gets one too.

"I Am Like This"

Lemo was once a highly admired singer and dancer. But now in her old age, she has become a drunk. In this story her daughter must take care of her when she gets drunk at a cremation ceremony.

"Who Will Water My Chili"

When Tamo falls ill with a mysterious illness, her mother and father grudgingly take care of their wayward daughter. Constantly needing reassurance that she will not die, Tamo plans what she will do when she is well again.

"The Photographs"

A single mother scrimped and saved to send her son to the best modern schools and colleges, leading to a government job in the city - and photos that she proudly shows to all of her friends in the village.

"Mother of a Thief"

From a young age, a woman encourages her son to steal things as long as he doesn't get caught. As he grows up, he continues to be the village thief, but for the sake of village harmony no one punishes him.

"I Am A Small Person"

As she is dying, a hunchbacked, deformed dwarf woman remembers the hardships of her life in the village and mourns her inability to have a child.

"The Mouse In The House"

A woman and a mouse live together in uncomfortable harmony. But then one day the constant nibbling and mess become too much for the woman and she decides to set a trap.

"A Letter and a Note"

After leaving her two years ago, Lhamo's husband writes a letter asking that she join him in Thimphu with the children. Knowing his philandering ways, she is hesitant, but eventually she joins him for the sake of the children. But how long will he be able to control his baser instincts?

"Tales in Colour"

The master dyer of the village, an old woman, explains how to get good colors to the younger women and tells stories to educate them in the old ways. But she's getting old and her memory is not what it used to be, and eventually she forgets how to practice her life's craft.

Ethnographic tales

These stories are not masterpieces of literary writing. They are readable and interesting, but their appeal comes from the ethnographic information they convey rather than the writing itself. This information allows the reader to have some insight into life in rural Bhutan, which because of its closed nature is nearly impossible for foreigners to access in person.

My favorite story is "Look at her Belly Button." It tells about how modernity and an international perspective - here symbolized by Hindi films - is something that becomes physically represented on the person's body.  The girl cannot give up everything that she has learned and experienced to go back to shoveling and carrying manure in the village. Her sojourns in the city have deeply impressed her, both mentally and physically. And to emphasize this - to remind herself of this past when she has returned to the village and is carrying manure - she decides to get her belly button pierced. Though it is not visible through her clothing, the sensation of the piercing rubbing against fabric is a constant companion, a reminder of where she has been and where she wants to go.

The stories in this collection provide a valuable insight into rural Bhutanese society. They are worth reading if you want to learn about a closed society that foreigners are unable to access in person. Just don't expect great literary writing, or a cleanly edited publication.

Tales in Colour is available as an ebook or in print from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart

Further Reading: 

Kunzang Choden's guest column in Colors Magazine
"Kunzang Choden talks to Basil Gepke" video interview from the Remarkable Encounters Youtube channel
"Rural Poverty in Bhutan" via the Rural Poverty Portal
"The Changing Face of Bhutan" by Arthur Lubow from Smithsonian Magazine (2008)
"Bhutan's Enlightened Experiment" by Brook Larmer from National Geographic (2008)
The Raven Magazine, a Bhutanese socio-political magazine in English

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  1. How wonderful to come across a book out of Bhutan, you've found some gems at this book festival.

    1. I love the Book Fair! :) I also have Kunzang Choden's novel (same stall :P), will hopefully be reading it soon. On a quick page-through, it looks like it is at least better copy-edited than this collection.

    2. I love the Book Fair! :) I also have Kunzang Choden's novel (same stall :P), will hopefully be reading it soon. On a quick page-through, it looks like it is at least better copy-edited than this collection.

  2. I love reading Mrs. Kunzang choden's book. Her stories always make me to feel nostalgic and it makes me to remember and recollect how I suffered since my childhood.