I learned about this from another blogger who is also reading a book from every country (but doing it all in one year!). Her review is here: http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/2012/06/26/bhutan-what-goes-around.
Although The Circle of Karma is apparently as the first novel written in English by a Bhutanese woman, it isn’t a widely available in the United State. Not a single public or university library in my state owns a copy, but I was able to track it down from elsewhere via inter-library loan. Inter-library loan is one of the great perks of being associated with a university and I’m grateful that it allowed me to access this book.
The novel follows a woman named Tsomo throughout her life as she grows up from a young village girl into an elderly woman who has traveled into India and Nepal. While the book would be substantially improved by better editing, it offers a fascinating window into life and customs in Bhutan. The central theme is Tsomo’s religious journey over the years, but I’m not going to talk about that in this post. It turns out that I have more I want to say about The Circle of Karma than fits into one post, so I’m going to try something I haven’t done up until now and split my comments into two posts. My next post will focus on the religious aspects of the book, while the current post discusses other parts of Bhutanese culture.
Tsomo’s village has a definite social hierarchy, with ‘tax-paying families’ like Tsomo’s at the higher end. (Tsomo’s family also has high status because her father is a religious scholar who performs ceremonies for other households.) Only families which work their own land are taxed. Those who work the land of others are not. Interestingly, taxes were paid in goods and labor, rather than in money. Each household had to produce a certain amount of cloth for the government every year and send someone to work a certain number of hours on building projects. They even had to pay a certain amount of soot, which the government used to make ink! (According to Wikipedia, this in-kind taxation was phased out in the 1960s.)
The village practices related to marriage were also very interesting. Marriage didn’t seem to exist as a formal institution and there was no ceremony equivalent to a wedding. Instead, young men and women would, for lack of a better term, ‘date’ privately and there didn’t seem to be much of a taboo about sex. Instead, whenever the woman became pregnant, the couple would come forward and the village would hold a purification ceremony for the baby and from that time the couple would live together as husband and wife.
This seemed like a reasonable system to me, until I got to the part of the book where Tsomo’s friend became pregnant and the father refused to come forward and acknowledge the baby. Despite the acceptance of sex without marriage, single motherhood was somehow still considered shameful. The system as a whole seems to put women in a precarious position where they had to rely upon men to voluntarily step up and take responsibility. If the man didn’t come forward, the women had to face all of the consequences and the men none. (From doing some web browsing, it appears that this custom was specific to a particular region within Bhutan and practices differed in other regions.) The shame faced by Tsomo’s friend is just one example of many in The Circle of Karma of how women were extremely vulnerable to exploitation by men in traditional Bhutanese society.
As a young girl, Tsomo sees her father teaching her brothers and other village boys to read religious texts. She wants to learn too, but is told that girls don’t need to learn how to read. Tsomo seems to take this to heart, since she never tried to learn to read, even later in her life when she probably could have found a way to do it if she tried. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a book before with an illiterate main character who never learns to read. In fact, being illiterate doesn’t seem to be especially important to Tsomo. While Tsomo is occasionally hindered in small ways by illiteracy, the fact that she can’t read is a relatively unimportant detail in the novel.
Authors are obviously usually people for whom the written word is very valuable and I wonder whether they are more likely to write about characters for whom reading is also important and learning to read an epiphany. It’s useful to consider that living in a culture and a time where illiteracy is common, learning to read, while useful, may simply be a less important skill, than, say, learning to weave. I also liked being reminded that people can experience intellectual and personal development without learning to read. Kunzang Choden did an excellent job of presenting the world from the viewpoint of a woman without education and not judging that viewpoint for its limitations.
My second post about Circle of Karma is here: https://biblioglobal.wordpress.com/2012/10/08/the-circle-of-karma-part-2/