Reviews

The woman who travels

The Circle of Karma is the first English novel by a woman from Bhutan. Set in the mid-20th century, the story revolves around Tsomo, an unlettered woman, who is exposed to a life of hardship and turmoil. In a nation where the home is the only secure resort for a woman, here is one who travels around many parts of the world confronting and defying all dangers but finally settling down to a life of peace and tranquillity.

Tsomo is the first daughter in a family of 12 children. By the time she is 15, only seven siblings remain. As a child, she asks her mother what is the farthest place to which she could travel, little aware that all her life she would be a directionless traveller without any destination to reach. Her horoscope predicted that she would ‘suffer anxiety and grief throughout her life’. Her father was a lay monk deeply rooted in the philosophy of predestination and karma. She was brought up untaught; her desire to seek education and learn basic religious precepts remained an unrealised dream. She grew up in an old-fashioned social ambience whose norms were that women should be meek and submissive devoid of ambition and drive.

On her way to Trongsa to light butter lamps for her mother’s first death anniversary, she comes into contact with a fellow pilgrim Wangchen, becomes pregnant and marries him after a purification ceremony. Her child is stillborn. Wangchen deserts Tsomo and begins a live-in relationship with her younger sister Kesang. Isolated and demoralised, she seeks freedom by fleeing from all her known associates. Her first refuge is Thimpu, the capital, where she seeks a job as a labourer with a road laying contractor for whom ‘the labourers were listed with the excavators, rollers, bulldozers, the spades and shovels’. She proceeds on her onward journey along with her companion to Kalimpong, a hill station in West Bengal, hoping to meet her elder brother who had left the family in search of a job in the army. As luck would have it she meets him only to find him a religious getting ready to go to Kurseong on a pilgrimage as a preparation for becoming a lama himself. He advises her and goes on his way.

The next stage of her pilgrimage is a visit, with a group of fellow companions, to Bodh Gaya where Buddha had attained nirvana. Under the Bodhi tree, “the living link between every Buddhist and the Buddha”, she experiences an overwhelming sense of piety. The thought that worries her is why she is being pushed around from place to place. “Was she a moth circling around the butter lamp”?

Another intruder into her life is Lhatu with whom ‘a marriage of sorts’ takes place. Lhathu deserts her in preference to a young girl who bears him a child. The news of Rinpoche’s death, her guardian angel in her life, is the last straw that breaks Tsomo’s back.

There is a flamboyant abundance of rituals described during the course of Tsomos’s sojourn around Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal and India. In easy, readable prose The Circle of Karma brings home a vivid and unforgettable picture of the valiant struggle for survival and peace in the life of an ordinary Bhutani woman.

The Circle of Karma; Kunzang Choden, Penguin, Rs.299.


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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 7:31:21 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/the-woman-who-travels/article6344848.ece

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