Visa hassles (namely, getting the damn thing from the Swiss Embassy, which we realised at the last minute was going to be closed on Friday and Monday) screwed up an appointment I’d been looking forward to, an interview with Bhutanese author Kunzang Choden; I couldn’t make it at the slotted time and finally managed to obtain 15 minutes in between a couple of her other interviews for the day. I was stressed out, sweating and panting by the time I made it to the Zubaan Books office in Hauz Khas and all things considered the interview wasn’t as comprehensive as it should’ve been. (I spent the first five minutes gulping down glasses of water while she spoke.)
Kunzang didn’t give the impression of being an author on a promotional blitz, waiting eagerly to discuss her book of the moment. She was in Delhi for the launch of her novel The Circle of Karma -- billed as "the first novel by a woman to come out of the Himalayan Kingdom" -- but she was every bit as enthusiastic about another story she’d recently written, about the hard lessons learnt by a scruffy street dog named Dawa who rises through the ranks to become a Leader of Howling(!) "A friend mentioned it must be difficult to write a narrative through another person’s eyes," Kunzang chuckled softly, "but I retorted that it’s at least easier than having an animal as your protagonist."
Even when discussing her cherished debut novel, she was laidback, happier to hear out a reader’s views (mine) on the book than to express her own. [At risk of consigning myself to Boaster’s Purgatory, I must add her to the list of scribes who have looked at me with moist-eyed gratitude on learning that I’ve actually bothered to read the book before coming to meet them. I was honest enough to tell her I had to rush through the last 100 pages.]
The Circle of Karma, one of two novels by south Asian women to be jointly published by Zubaan Books and Penguin India (Mitra Phukan’s The Collector’s Wife is the other), is the story of Tsomo, a feisty young girl compelled by her own restless spirit - and later by circumstance - to leave her family and go on a series of endless travels. Hope and tragedy mark her path in equal measure as her story provides a microcosm of Bhutanese society. While fulfilling its narrative demands, the book still manages to be very informative throughout about customs and rituals in Bhutan. Was that deliberate, I asked. Did Kunzang write her story with a global audience in mind? "In the first draft, I wrote exactly as I felt," she said, "but once I had the skeleton of the story in place, I re-examined it and asked myself: is it reader-friendly enough? Revisions followed accordingly."
Like her protagonist Tsomo, there’s something of the itinerant in Kunzang. In 1962, aged just nine, she travelled for 12 days, by foot and on horseback ("there were no proper roads then"), to reach India, where she did her schooling in Kalimpong and Darjeeling. "Around that time, Bhutan had started progressing from an illiterate, isolated society to one that was willing to send its children to study in India," she said, "and I was among the first few to benefit." After graduating from Delhi University, she went back and taught in Bhutan for a few years, then stayed in the US for four years with her husband. "Some of my experiences have worked their way into Tsomo’s life," she told me.
"Where can a girl travel to?" Tsomo’s mother asks rhetorically near the beginning of the story. It’s a question that resonates throughout the book. And it’s especially telling that a novel written by an educated, much-travelled Bhutanese woman should deal prominently with the fact that women in her country have not traditionally been encouraged to read, write or study the scriptures. This is an incongruity given that Bhutan is a largely matriarchal society, one where inheritance still passes to the woman in most rural areas. "It is something to think about," admitted Kunzang, "because, you see, Bhutan is that rare country in south Asia where women are not discriminated against. The arrival of a girl child is cause for celebration, women do the same work as men and widows are even encouraged to marry again. So yes, I suppose there’s something dichotomous about women not being encouraged to study the scriptures."
Next on Kunzang’s platter, so to speak, is a book titled Chilli and Cheese: Food and Society in Bhutan. She’s also enthusiastic about a catalogue she’s working on for a museum in Bumthang in central Bhutan. "The reason I feel so strongly about the project," she said, "is that the museum is located in my ancestral home!" Like Tsomo, who finds her life has come full circle at the end of the story, it seems home is where the heart is for her creator too.