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An alternative form of literature

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on January 13, 2018
The miner of storie: Bhutanese author Kunzang Choden. Photo: R V Moorthy

The miner of storie: Bhutanese author Kunzang Choden. Photo: R V Moorthy   -  The Hindu

Circle of Karma; Kunzang Choden; Fiction; Zubaan; ₹495

Circle of Karma; Kunzang Choden; Fiction; Zubaan; ₹495

Kunzang Choden’s museum of stories does not depend upon printing or publishing.

The grand old lady of Bhutanese fiction, Kunzang Choden is, at 64 years, an energetic woman who journeyed 392 km across the mountains, from her valley in Bumthang district, to speak at the Mountain Echoes festival in Thimphu in August last year. In 2005, Choden pulled off the feat of getting her debut novel, Circle of Karma, published outside Bhutan. This was at a time when there was hardly any fiction being written in her country. Today the number of writers has grown, but there still isn’t a local publishing industry to speak of: most writers in Bhutan print their own books.

Circle of Karma was brought out by the Indian publishing house Zubaan, and it is a personal account of how Bhutan became part of the modern world — drawing on her own story. Explaining how she became a storyteller, Choden says that the stories from home kept her sane when she, as a child of nine, undertook a 12-day journey downhill on foot to a railway station in India, from where a train took her to an Irish convent school in Kalimpong. She didn’t understand a word of what the English-speaking nuns went on about, so she retold stories to herself in her eastern Bhutanese dialect.

She ended up spending a long time outside Bhutan, and her foreign university degrees in psychology and sociology provided her with modern intellectual tools to explore the country’s traditions.

Her own childhood experience, of telling herself stories, illustrates the importance of oral traditions and how they might aid in one’s quest to establish one’s cultural identity. So she has now created a museum of stories — which, to me, sounds like a remarkable alternative form of literature, one that doesn’t rely on printing presses and publishing houses.

Following are excerpts from BLink’s conversation with Choden during the Mountain Echoes festival.

How did this idea of a story museum come to you?

The museum is actually our own house, which is like a dzong, almost a fortress, with four floors and 22 rooms for the exhibition. Our roots there go back 600 years, but after the 1950s, when there were social reforms, things changed for us feudal families. We had to find a new meaning and fit into this new Bhutan. Some people turned their homes into hotels, but I felt we can’t do that — we must honour our ancestors. So I asked myself what else one could do with such a building and the only thing I could think of was a museum. Because I realised that the house is full of stories. We work with very little funds, mostly from the family, but we get lots of visitors — not just tourists, but schools and colleges come to do projects. You see, the trouble with existing museums in Bhutan is that often there is no story to go with what you look at. In fact, I’ve had visitors come back and say, “Oh, I forgot to ask you the story of this”.

So what does a visitor experience at your museum?

We usually give them a Bhutanese lunch and after that I show them around, and with each question they ask, the stories keep growing. In the beginning I did all the storytelling myself, but nowadays I have an assistant because speaking all the time tires my voice. This year we actually opened a few guest rooms too, if people want to stay.

What kind of stories do you tell them?

Every single artefact has a story behind it. And stories are not just to be told, but they have to be interactive. That is how Bhutanese stories are. And one story leads to another — so these would be stories about Bhutan’s history or our family. Ninety-nine per cent of the artefacts are from my family and I’ve organised them into themes. There is a Trade Room, where I tell visitors about how, for example, we sold horses to Tibet. There’s also a War Room, which tells the story of how we fought the British. You will see antique bows and arrows, and so people ask how Bhutan wasn’t colonised, when the British had more advanced weapons.

And you tell them?

We used to dip the arrows in a deadly poison.

Apart from your celebrated novel, you’ve written books on folktales, Bhutanese food and a book about the yeti — do you know anybody who met it?

Yes, I know two people who met the yeti, or at least what they thought was the yeti. For our yak herder, who lived with the yaks and was away from human habitation for months at a time, the yeti was as natural as the high mountains. He had respect for the creature, saying if I keep out of its way it will not harm me. The second person is from my valley and is well known to me. He was travelling to Thimphu with some companions and they stopped on a mountain for a small break, when through the mist they all saw the creature. They were shocked, but the psychological shock in the aftermath was greater. Such an encounter is considered a negative omen. Three or four members of his family died the same year. As I often say, we humans cannot claim to unravel everything.

For more about the Ogyen Choling museum of stories, go to www.oling.bt

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time detective novelist and part-time travel writer based in Bengaluru

Published on March 03, 2017

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