The Circle Game

Posted on October 26, 2012


Do not start your worldly life too late; do not start your religious life too early – Bhutanese proverb

Perhaps the two main things most people know about ‘The Thunder Dragon Kingdom’ is that they measure Gross National Happiness, and they were one of the last countries on the planet to allow television – it was banned until 1999. A word in their own ears about not starting their worldly life too late might not have gone amiss.  These two facts alone, let alone the roof of the world scenery, make it easy to romanticize the Kingdom, turning it into the mythical Shangri-la.  I know that’s what I’d imagined anyway. But positive stereotyping can be dangerous. In our eagerness to view those who live closest to heaven, we may blank out the pro-democracy demonstrators who are arrested, the gays sent to prison, and the ethnic Nepalese (1/5th of the population) expelled through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Books like Kunzang Choden’s The Circle of Karma are necessary cutters-through of this romanticized yak kak.  Choden, the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel and in English no less, speaks for those silenced behind the dragon’s thunder and speaks in a voice that’s easy to listen to.

The Circle of Karma is set in the late 50s at a time when Bhutan was going through its first wave of (limited) modernity.   The old ways are still very much in evidence in the novel and it’s a real delight to have Bhutanese rituals and customs described so clearly yet explained so lightly.  Writing for an international audience, Choden was always going to find explaining customs and superstitions unavoidable and yet her explanations are never invasive, always appearing to arise naturally out of the narrative. More often than not, she has the confidence and poise to delay such clarification for paragraphs if not pages, thereby never sacrificing flow or pace.  These anthropological expositions alone make this a worthwhile read.  The structure of the novel is also quite satisfying.  The Prologue and the Epilogue are like an Ouroboros; the end is the beginning, the beginning is the end.   A reification of The Circle of Karma.

The novel follows the life of Tsomo a young Bhutanese girl who is forced to leave her village following a series of disasters.  First her mother dies in childbirth, then she has a disastrous marriage (her husband beats her, she loses a baby, her husband has an affair with her younger sister and gets her pregnant) then her father dies.  Those of you who’ve been on this reading journey so far will no doubt be thinking, ‘So far, so familiar’.  What’s different about the telling of this story, and Tsomo’s subsequent re-marriage (to a man who runs off with a younger woman and gets her pregnant – you get the pattern) is that Tsomo and those around her view her life as pre-determined.  They don’t expect Tsomo to complain nor do they expect retribution for those who abuse her (well not in this life anyway).  Such is the work of Karma.   For me, this is where the book’s real power lies.   It’s a book that forces you think about a very big issue – belief.

I’ve often flirted with the idea of Buddhism. For a jaded Westerner it has seemed like the kind of philosophy that might enable humans to live together peacefully, might led us to tread more softly upon the planet and allow for all things being equal.  Well, that was my limited understanding of it anyway. Choden’s version of it, or at least that part of it which relates to Karma, comes as something of a shock. Karma, it seems, can be uncomfortable, dark and not a little scary.  If we take Tsomo’s life as representative of that of most Bhutanese Buddhists (not that I imagine all women have quite the same level of disaster meted out on them as poor Tsomo), then what emerges is indifference to her suffering from others and defeatism from herself. We carry the weight of Karma (literally for Tsomo – she has a karmic illness – a swollen, painful, heavy belly) with us always.  We get what we deserve in this life because of how we behaved in a former life.  We can’t change this, but we might change our next incarnation through a system of merits – usually paying monks to pray for you. Remind you of anything? Indulgences? Relics?  This leads to the kind of thinking that keeps women, workers, minorities in their place.

It all leaves me struggling with the paradox that having a ‘live and let live’ philosophy might not lead to liberalism but tyranny.[1]  That said, I’m pretty sure I still like Buddhism, I think I’m still pretty liberal, and I’m certain that I still want to visit Bhutan, but, despite being a believer that ‘what goes around comes around’, I’m no longer sure I like Karma very much.  Not that I want to admit that, I may regret it later, in my next incarnation.






[1] This hasn’t been helped by reading an article posted by a friend about discrimination: