Coming full circle

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By Avijit Ghosh reports") response.write intro %>
  • Published 3.04.05

At the age of nine, Kunzang Choden trudged 12 days on foot and on horseback through dense jungles and splendid mountains in the daytime and slept inside narrow caves at night. She was on her way to school.

It was the Fifties. Bhutan, almost an isolated Himalayan kingdom till then, had hesitantly opened its doors to modern education. Till then, mostly boys received religious education in the Buddhist monasteries. But now, as government schools opened up, education became accessible to all. Girls too could attend these schools.

But Kunzang?s father had a more radical idea. A prosperous farmer in central Bhutan?s Bumthang district, he decided to send his daughter to a convent in eastern India. The villagers thought he was crazy. For a society where education was almost synonymous with men and religion, the idea of sending a daughter to school abroad was unheard of, almost sacrilegious. But Kunzang?s father knew what he was doing.

So one fine day, they set her off on an arduous trek to St Joseph?s School, Kalimpong. Kunzang even had a retinue of servants, and, hold it!, a translator, for company. Cooking their own food, dancing around campfires and listening to the sound of the wind, it was like a happy Long March towards the unknown. ?I didn?t even know where I was going. I only knew India as the land Buddha came from,? recalls Kunzang, whose just-released work of fiction, The Circle of Karma (published by Zubaan/Penguin), makes her Bhutan?s first woman novelist.

Over four decades later, the 52-year-old author still carries vivid memories of that childhood odyssey. Some journeys lead you to new worlds. Kunzang?s trek through the mountains altered the course of her life forever. But the walk can also be seen as a metaphor for Bhutan?s movement towards the modern world.

In The Circle of Karma, the protagonist Tsomo, a 15-year-old girl from a remote village, too undertakes a journey that changes her life. Like the author, she travels to India. Like Kunzang, she too loses her mother at an early age. And, like the writer, she finally goes back to Bhutan. Many first novels are autobiographies, thinly-veiled as fiction. But Tsomo, says the writer, is not Kunzang Choden. ?You create a character. And then, facts get inter-woven,? she says softly.

There?s a mountain unspoiltness about Kunzang. She speaks in a low, unhurried voice. And it reflects in her writing. The Circle of Karma is leisurely-paced. It doesn?t dazzle you with similes. Instead, it gently guides you like a child into Tsomo?s changing world and earns your empathy.

Like her heroine, Kunzang too has seen the Land of the Thunder Dragon change from a feudal, agrarian, subsistence economy to a fledging market-driven society. These twists and turns impacted every area of Bhutanese life. The novel maps these changes and tries to capture them in a microcosm. ?Tsomo represents many Bhutanese women who were born in the Thirties and Forties and felt strongly deprived of education. She represents a generation,? says the writer.

Kunzang?s generation of Bhutanese women were hesitant pioneers battling social and cultural odds as they stepped out of home and entered the world of learning. A generation that paved the way for the new millennium Bhutanese women. In the tiny Himalayan kingdom today, girls constitute 30 per cent of the total enrolment in institutes of technical education. In primary schools, 46.8 per cent students are girls. The maternal mortality rate has fallen from 7.7 (1984) to 2.5 (2000) per 1,000. An astounding 68 per cent of those who benefitted from the government?s non-formal education programme are women. ?And there are many women entrepreneurs in the retailing business,? says Kunzang, who also writes on women?s issues.

It was a different world, though, when Kunzang landed up in the Kalimpong convent run by Irish nuns. For someone who only spoke Bumthang Kha, her local Bhutanese dialect, sitting in a class full of younger and brighter children from a different social and cultural background and being taught every subject in English was a disorienting experience.

Back in Ogyencholing village, she was the only girl in the small village school her father had set up. There she learnt the classical Tibetan language. As a preparation for her east India trip, her father found her a tutor who knew the English alphabets. ?After we finished learning A to Z, he taught us how to repeat them backwards. That?s all he knew,? she laughs.

It wasn?t the best of preparations. The nuns put her in the kindergarten class where everybody else was so junior that she felt ?like a mother? to the rest of the students. Kunzang recalls feeling self-conscious all the time. She says, ?I wanted to blend. But I stood out. However, things improved with time. And looking back, I have never regretted being there.?

After finishing school from Darjeeling ? she had moved to Loreto Convent by then ? Kunzang went to Indraprastha College (IP), Delhi. Convent was controlled and protected but college meant freedom. Being on the Femina cover for being chosen as Miss IP 1973 was part of the fun. Kunzang recalls the event with a degree of amusement. During the competition, she was asked what a lady would do if she stood before a puddle wearing a long dress. ?Being a mountain girl I immediately said that I would jump over it. It wasn?t very ladylike. But I guess, they overlooked that,? she laughs.

Back in Bhutan after getting a degree in psychology, Kunzang taught at a primary school in Bumthang and also sent development reports for the newly-established radio station. What she missed most was books. For a country rich in oral tradition, the printed word was limited to religious texts. There was little fiction or secular literature to read in Bhutanese. Writing ? be it corresponding with her friends, or, just for pleasure ? was an important part of her existence. But penning fiction or collecting folk tales wasn?t part of her scheme of things then.

But being married to a Swiss ? they met in Bumthang where he was working on a rural development project ? and having three children who were unsure about their cultural identity made her realise the importance of telling them the folk tales of Bhutan. What began as a mother?s concern slowly evolved into a larger enterprise. Collecting these tales that had survived through generations of grandmothers and putting them on paper for everyone to enjoy became her driving passion. The outcome: two books on Bhutanese folk tales.

?Folk tales, oral traditions and women?s issues ? these are my key areas of interest,? says Kunzang, who also has a degree in sociology from the University of Nebraska. Studying sociology has helped her understand how women were made to carry out a sustenance role through much of Bhutanese history. How a sly male interpretation of Buddhist texts prevented women from accessing the religious scriptures. And how, shorn of knowledge, the destiny of Bhutanese women was never in their own hands.

Since then, as Kunzang takes pride in telling you, a lot has changed. In the civil service, 16 per cent are women. In Bhutan today, most major decisions on family matters are jointly made by husband and wife. ?And we do not suffer many of the gender-based discriminations such as dowry deaths or honour killings as are endured by our south Asian sisters,? says the writer, now working on a book tentatively titled, Chilly and Cheese, Food and Society in Bhutan.

That?s not to say Bhutan is free of gender-related prejudices. Only that a country which had opened its door to women?s education merely five decades ago has made rapid strides in female empowerment.

Kunzang Choden?s own journey on those perilous mule paths paved the way for many Bhutanese women. Just as her novel might spur a bunch of wannabe women novelists in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.