The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden is the first novel written by a woman in Bhutan. Using simple language and straightforward plot line, the story weaves around Tsomo and her literal and metaphorical journey from her childhood to her old age.
Set in the mid-20th century Bhutan, The Circle of Karma‘s protagonist is Tsomo, who lives in Tang valley in Bumthang (one of the districts of Bhutan), is burdened with household chores and envious of her brothers getting a religious education from her scholarly father, who was a gomchen (a religious scholar/monk).
She deeply loves and respects her mother. She fears her father. She wants to learn to read and write but being a girl, she is not allowed to do so.
Her observant nature though allows us a glimpse into several cultural aspects around her such as the nature of society and its bias towards women or the rituals that happen around her in her society.
She deeply loves and respects her mother and is in awe of how she manages so many children along with the household. The novel itself begins with a beautiful solitary moment that is shared between mother and daughter.
“Tsomo is in the house alone with Mother. They are seldom on their own; this is a rare moment.”
Later on, when Tsomo’s unusual marriage to Wangchen comes to an end, she is forced to rethink and take a bold decision of running away from the security of her home. At a time when women travelling all alone was quite uncommon, Tsomo’s decision to run away on her own with no support system, was valiant.
On her journey she sees and meets and experiences the difficult situations. She works at road construction site in Thimphu, meets Dechen Choki, another fellow worker, who becomes like her younger sister.
She even travels to Kalimpong (situated close to Bhutan’s border) with Dechen, after the supervisor at the construction site continuously sexually assaults Dechen. In Kalimpong (a small town in West Bengal, India), she meets her brother and settles down there with his help.
It was in Kalimpong that she was taken by a group of female pilgrims to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. From there the group even goes to Nepal and then Tsomo even ends up going to another pilgrim site, Tso Pema in Himachal Pradesh, India. There she ends up living a life with Lhatu, a man who drops into her life suddenly and slowly, they begin to live a life of a husband and wife.
So how does her journey end?
You will have to read and find out.
The one reason, The Circle of Karma, is included in the Travel Diaries is because of the idea of journey that suffuses the entire novel. Travel is distinct in the novel. It is foreshadowed in the beginning as well when Tsomo’s birth mark, is supposed to predict that her life will be filled with restlessness and traveling. It is not simply a physical journey that Tsomo undertakes but also a spiritual and psychological journey that she goes through. Her self reflection and growth is the main highlight along with her travels and travails. We see Tsomo at the beginning as a child absorbing the cultural and gender norms through her society and everything that she observes around her. Yet as her experiences teach her, she is conflicted with her own ideas about things including her identity as well as what society has taught her. She is able to question the assumptions that have been ingrained in her. She is able to take a step back and rethink her learned ideas. Her changing perspectives towards her past also highlights her growth. Eventually, she does not hold on to her past with any kind of grudge, but learns to let go.
The novel also is a unique female bildungsroman that not only traces Tsomo’s life from childhood to the end but also portrays her growth. It is important to perceive this growth while one reads the story, as it is something any reader can connect to. We all grow individually in our thoughts, in our perceptions. Who we are today is not who we were yesterday. In that way, Tsomo’s journeys can teach us a lot.
You can buy the book here!