Monday, October 5, 2015

The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden

Kunzang Choden
2005, published by Zubaan
316 pages, woman's life story
Found: Kolkata Book Fair 2015

This book tells the life story of Tsomo, an illiterate woman from rural Bhutan. Tsomo’s life takes her to places she never expected – India, Nepal, Bodh Gaya – and through experiences that are unusual, to say the least. Although she was never able to learn how to read or write, she is a devout Buddhist. Illiteracy and illness cannot stop her from going on pilgrimages, or from becoming a devotee of Rinpoche, a refugee monk from Tibet. Or from finally becoming a nun toward the end of her life, focusing her energies on worship at the National Memorial chorten in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Her life is one of suffering, friendships, travels, sickness, and joy – but that is just because of her karma.

Muddling through 

For personal reasons, Tsomo runs away from her family home when she is in her early 20s. When she arrives in Thimphu, she has no money, so she takes a job on a road-building crew, breaking rocks into gravel for long hours every day. As an illiterate, uneducated rural woman with few profitable skills and nowhere to call home, this job is the best she can hope for. But she doesn’t mind it, and because she is a friendly and garrulous person she manages to make friends that help her endure the hardship. Not wanting to stay on the road crew, she saves money and keeps moving, first arriving in Kalimpong, a Himalayan city near Darjeeling in India, and later going on pilgrimages farther to the west. While she moves frequently, she never really consciously decides to move: she is invited to travel with friends, or to stay with friends, or she likes a place and decides to stay. Because she is poor and homeless, there is no reason for her not to move to another place. In this unconscious way, she becomes relatively free of material attachments even before she becomes a nun.  

Throughout her travels, Tsomo finds that her skills of weaving, gardening, and brewing the Bhutanese liquor ara are a constant source of employment. She is able to keep herself fed and clothed with these basic skills, learned during her childhood in Bhutan. She is not rich, but she doesn’t need to be rich; she just needs to have enough to get by, and that’s what she is able to do with these village skills.

A Karmic Illness

One of the most interesting and poignant aspects of this book is the “karmic illness” that Tsomo struggles with for many years. After a premature stillbirth, Tsomo’s stomach never returns to her pre-pregnant state: for years, she continues to look eight months pregnant. Her huge stomach causes her to have enormous difficulties getting around and working. This is particularly a problem when she tries to take up weaving because she can no longer fit into the backstrap loom!

But even worse is the psychological part of her illness. She gets constant comments about her "pregnancy," and most people refuse to believe her when she tries to explain that she is actually ill. When she visits a hospital in India, the doctors even laugh and tell her to come back when the contractions start. This takes an immense toll: not only does she have trouble accomplishing the most minor tasks and consider herself deformed and ugly, but no one believes her when she tells them that she’s sick!

For the educated reader, this “karmic illness” shows all the hallmarks of cancer. But for uneducated Tsomo, it is a real mystery. The fact that no doctor believes her just exacerbates the problem; without a doctor actually listening to her, how will she get a diagnosis?  She finally is taken to an American missionary hospital, where the doctors believe her and perform surgery to remove the mass from her stomach. But in one of the most heartbreaking moments in the novel, Tsomo is unable to find out what her illness actually was:

When the doctor came to check on her she asked him what had been in her belly and he explained in great detail what it was, but all that the Tibetan interpreter said was, ‘It was a disease, an illness.’

She never learns what it was that plagued her for so long, just that it had been a disease and it had been taken out and discarded. While it is good that she finally got the much-needed medical care, it is terrible that the doctor and patient were prevented from communicating so much as the name of her disease. This highlights the great disadvantages that the illiterate Tsomo faces when navigating through modern-day India. 

As a Novel

I was a bit skeptical about this novel after reading Kunzang Choden’s short story collection, which I didn’t like very much. But it was truly worth the read, and I’m happy that I picked it up despite my misgivings. As with the short stories, my one major complaint is that the novel needed better copyediting: there are numerous typos and other errors throughout the book. Unlike with the short stories, this tale was so compelling that these minor errors did not really affect the storytelling. I wouldn't expect them to bother most readers. 

I don’t generally like these kinds of novels. But Tsomo’s story was so unique and so interesting, especially after she became ill, that I highly enjoyed it. This was a brilliant book and definitely worth reading. Highly recommended as a tale of human resilience, creativity, and friendship in the face of immense difficulties.

The Circle of Karma is available in India from Amazon and flipkart, in the UK from Amazon and Hive, and in the US from Amazon and IndieBound.

Further Reading: 

"Bhutan: what goes around comes around" from AYearofReadingtheWorld
Also check out my review of Kunzang Choden's short story collection, Tales in Color and Other Stories

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