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HER MANY LIVES – HISILA YAMI

by Ankita Jain

Hisila Yami is a Nepali politician and an architect. In her recently published “Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady”, Hisila takes us through her journey from a Leftist revolutionary to becoming Nepal’s first lady. The memoir chronicles her many roles as a daughter in an elite Newa family, a college student in India, meeting and marrying former Prime Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai, becoming an underground revolutionary, becoming a three-time minister, and her life as a mother and a feminist.

In a interview with WOW’s Ankita Jain, Hisila throws light on her political journey, glimpses of her personal life, and how politics affects a woman. Excerpts:

Your memoir covers the history of three generations of political events that took place in the country. When did you start writing it? What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

I started writing in December 2014 when one of the five leaders who started People’s War died all of a sudden. His wife told me that he was collecting all the materials so that he could write a memoir and this gave me the push towards my all time desire to write a memoir. His death also made me realise that my memoir would play a great role in the history. I was writing something political and it had a lot to do with Baburam as well. Social to political awakening, he had a major role which I admit proudly. Moreover, I finished my book around three years back.

First, the journey of writing this memoir made me very patient. I have studied in a Central School where I was paying Rs 5 per month in 1970s. So the publishers, Penguin India, really polished my memoir drafts. The best part about them was that they didn’t allow me to change anything in essence but in form, they tuned the language.

Second, my memoir required citations and that required me to read many books. Moreover, while writing the book, I witnessed I have become more careful contrary to my image of a spontaneous woman.

What is your analysis of the direction of the last Madhesi Andolan?

Many people have asked me why I haven’t included Madhesi Andolan as such in my book. The prime reason being during the People’s War, I was never posted to that area. Also my work was mainly based in India. So, I have included only the incidents that are connected to me.

However, be it Madhesi movement, Dalit movement or any ethnic movement, what I find is that the kind of depth required is still missing. There’s something called power-hungry, the oppressed lot haven’t seen what power is like. And when they see power, it captivates them entirely. This leads to tokenism in many ways. In the book, one of the chapters titled- “Will the oppressed rise?” talks about this issue.

Since you were infected by Covid 19 during the release of the book, what challenges did you face?

I am a sportswoman and I generally take good care of my health and Baburam is just opposite in this case. I often encourage him to do yoga with me or be physically active.

I was more worried that Covid will affect Baburam more than me and it actually happened. In my case it was a very mild symptom but in his case it was worse. Luckily, it didn’t attack his lungs. However he recovered well and I am glad that Covid made us do the nitty-gritty works at home like real homemakers which we would never have time to do. We were enjoying cleaning our bookshelves together; those are the times I will always cherish.

How does politics affect a human being on a personal level?

If you are a woman, politics affect you in a multifaceted way. The power balance is immensely imbalanced. For instance, if anyone sees me the first thing they will remember is that I am the wife of Baburam Bhattarai; and this is painful.

Even if you are unmarried, a political woman is never taken seriously because of their gender. Again when you are a wife, your identity revolves around your political husband and not you.

At a more personal level, you are scrutinised, attacked, you are under the radar and more. For instance, I keep telling Rishi Dhamala to not invite me if he tends to ask personal questions. He agrees and eventually he will start with political questions and end it up with more personal attacks. I was extremely angry with this kind of behaviour, I could have walked out of his show but I stayed composed.

Also I have been attacked many times over the way I am. I never had my nose pierced nor did I wear a tilhari, a necklace worn by married Brahmin women, despite being married to a Brahmin. I did not wear bangles or rings. I still maintained my short haircut; left my hair grey without dyeing it black. I wore pants, used no makeup and wore no jewellery except small ear studs. I never prayed nor went to a temple.

You read a lot about gender issues. What draws you towards these books?

I am interested in gender issues in a very inquisitive way. You have the same father and mother and the same womb and still why such difference between sons and daughters. This has remained a major question wherever I have been to. On a positive note, I take this as a struggle and every struggle makes you stronger.

How have you evolved as a woman leader over the years?

I never dreamt of being a leader. When I was studying in Kanpur, the wife of a professor asked me what I want to be in the future. And my spontaneous answer was that I want to be a social worker. I saw the sad plight of Nepalis in India and this really hit me hard. I saw Nepal from India in a very different perspective. I met people from different parts of Nepal in India who had no connection with Kathmandu. For them Kathmandu was like a different country.

From Kanpur I went to Delhi to study architecture and there I met Baburam. He introduced me to politics then and I became what I am today. Over the years, I believe I have become more holistic.

What holds women back from a progressive political career?

First of all, structure of the state, society and family are not conducive to women’s participation. From womb to tomb, she has to pass so many barriers.

Women who want to make it in politics, I always tell them that they have to be continuously on the run. They can’t afford any break whether they get married or have children.

A piece of advice you received from your mother, and one that you want your daughter to have…

I was very young when my mother passed away. I was around 10 years old. She couldn’t advice me anything then but there are many life lessons she taught me. We were seven children and I being the youngest of all, she always encouraged me to be independent. My mother always made a point to never lie to her children and this I applied when I had a daughter.

My daughter is more mature than me. Manushi once asked me a question, “Aama you have done so much in your tenure, you removed monarchy and now there’s no huge agenda to fight for”. And I replied that every revolution is followed by counter revolution and you’ve to stop that. One more advice to Manushi would be to manage the gender difference in the society.

What is your relationship in personal and professional life with Dr Baburam Bhattarai based on?

On a personal level, Baburam is like my friend. And politically, he is my leader. We are trying to get into a new mission where we are trying to get into an inclusive government. We plan to build a political party structure from scratch and how it will also give space to ‘oppressed’ groups, including transgender people.

With more male writers in the offing, the role of women in paving the history is rarely observed. What are your thoughts on this?

In many books written in context to People’s War, they have hardly mentioned my name or any women involved during those times. However, I have made it a point to mention every woman involved in People’s War. I have also mentioned the names of the wives of the main leaders because this matters. When a man writes they often don’t write personal things but when a woman writes, she writes it with every tiny detail. On a similar note, many people have mentioned that my book is rich in its content and this is possible only when the writer is a woman.

How do you view the political climate unfold in Nepal even as we live in a new normal across the world?

Things are going to be very bad. The gap between rich and poor is immensely increasing. The oppressed group will be more oppressed.

While the book mentions that many women joined the revolution because they were oppressed and the Royal Nepal Army had used rape as a weapon of war, it fails to address the same crimes from the Maoist side. How do you perceive this equation?

I have addressed this in the last chapter of the book which talks about why Maoists lost and are still losing ground.

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