‘Hisila’: This memoir tells the story of the Leftist revolutionary who became Nepal’s first lady

Being the youngest of seven siblings, I was a hyperactive, happy-go-lucky child who had no obligation to do domestic chores. I spent most of my time playing with friends. I remember I used to jump from one wall to another, from one floor to another, in my home in Bhurungkhel. I still have scars on both legs due to incessant injuries. I was good at sports. In India, at the Central School, IIT Kanpur, I used to participate at the local, zonal, regional and national levels in badminton and basketball. I even got the best sportswoman award in SPA, new Delhi, in 1980.

However, years later, when BRB was elected as the prime minister, my hyperactive nature proved to be counterproductive. My extrovert nature was looked upon as intrusive. My educational background was looked upon as a threat. To add to this, my highly educated sisters and brothers were not viewed positively; their positions in government offices were equated with nepotism and favouritism on my part.

My indigenous Newari background and my vocal support for identity-based federalism became an irritant to the high-caste Khas Arya community within the party, both in the government and otherwise. Not everybody appreciated it when BRB wore a Jyapu dress (a traditional attire of Newaris) and read out his speech in Nepal bhasa (the language of the Newars) on “Jyapu Diwas”, as a mark of respect for Newari identity.

I never had my nose pierced nor did I wear a tilhari, a necklace worn by married Brahmin women, despite being wedded 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 make-up and wore no jewellery except small ear studs. I never prayed nor went to a temple.

All these unconventional acts antagonised the majority of the mainstream politicians, the middle-class people and the more traditional (orthodox) masses. They saw me as a rebel and not a typical wife. According to traditional Hindu rituals, I would be taken as a widow who cut her hair, who did not wear bangles or a tilhari, who neither put bindi on her forehead nor vermillion in her hair parting.

What made the situation more difficult was that BRB was an introvert, serious and serene, while I was loud, easy-going and impatient. As the wife of a PM, I was expected to be just the opposite of what I was. I was expected to be ladylike. I was expected to be quiet. Similarly, I was expected to be like a socialite. I remember a production manager of a popular daily in Kathmandu sincerely suggested that I work for old-age homes, single-women shelters and orphanages, distributing food and warm clothes.

But how could I transform myself into a social worker when I had been elected to work as a legislative member from my constituency? It was even suggested that I host and organise kitty parties! My background of the PW just did not fit in with the etiquette expected from me at Baluwatar.

I was, after all, a former minister who had held several portfolios. I was also an elected legislative member when BRB was voted as the PM. I was, thus, confused as to how to adjust to my new situation as the wife of the PM, the highest executive post in Nepal. I began browsing the Internet, reading up on the status of the first ladies in different countries.

I read about Hillary Clinton to find out how she performed her duties as the first lady in the USA. I felt my situation was almost similar to hers, although she had become a member of the senate after being the wife of a US President.

Later on, I read a book written by her, What Happened, after she lost the Presidential election. I realised how state functioning could bring two opposing schools of thought together. The same Hisila Yami, who was in the street demonstrating against Hillary Clinton’s nepal visit in 1995, was now googling Clinton’s life as the first lady of the US in 2008!

Besides accompanying BRB for important national and international events, I kept myself busy working on women’s issues and making access to various ministries easier for party workers and people who sought to resolve their day-to-day concerns. I also helped entrepreneurs and businessmen get access to respective ministries for their work. I even interacted with women journalists, inviting them for coffee at Baluwatar.

I readily gave an interview to a senior woman journalist, Yashoda Timilsina. I told her rather frankly that I was ready to help BRB in his capacity as PM as I had the experience of running three ministries. This statement created a big controversy. I was blamed for running a parallel government, for daring to say that I could “help” the PM with my past experiences.

Similarly, I admitted in the interview that my party had always kept me in a team assigned to collect money from donors after we came to the peace process. This created a bigger uproar, and I was blamed in the media for being corrupt. I had complained to my party asking them to issue an explanation, not only for the media but also for clarity within the party. I did not get any response. I was hurt that my party did not come to my defence.

I then remembered Prachanda’s followers who would say during inner party struggles that we should be squeezed like lemons and thrown out. It is worth mentioning that senior leaders were asked to donate 10 per cent of their net worth to the party for initiating the PW. Only two had given the full amount, one of them was BRB and the other was CP Gajurel. We sold our house for this purpose!

I really felt that my party had unduly used me. I acknowledge that I was the most well-off and the most educated woman who had joined the PW. And this was what I got from my party for joining the movement: being branded as a corrupt person without any evidence, out of sheer jealousy and vendetta!

Despite being an architect, I took greater interest in the tourism sector as I felt Nepal had a comparative advantage vis- à-vis India and China. Although I was no longer the tourism minister, I had tried to get the tourism sector designated as a major industry by coordinating with the private sector, the ministry and the PMO. At that time, the ministry of tourism was under the prime minister.

This active intervention was not taken kindly. I was attacked for receiving commission from the private sector. In fact, a magazine called Crime Today declared me “the most corrupt woman in South Asia” without providing any details or proof; I had no idea what “corrupt” deed I was being accused of! They had my photo on their cover page. It was horrifying. People circulated it on social media and in newspapers when I stood for the elections to the second CA.

I went to the Kathmandu District Court to sue the magazine. I won the case in October 2014, only to be told that the chief editor and publisher of the magazine would be fined Rs 1000 as compensation. I felt disgusted; such a paltry punishment for destroying my political career!

I suffered undue slander. What saved me from breaking down was the memory of my mother. My mother had suffered heavily during my father’s ministerial tenure in 1950. She underwent isolation and humiliation from our relatives who instigated my father to remarry. She was criticised for her dark complexion, for being old and not up to his stature.

What saved me was my pre-emptive preparation to face criticism when I entered Baluwatar. I knew I, too, would be the target of slander. But I was targeted not for my appearance but because I had a strong political background, because I was vocal, I was educated and I fought for the emancipation of oppressed classes, gender, regions, nationality/ethnicity and religious minority communities. Unlike my mother’s suffering, which was of a private, apolitical nature that nearly led to a divorce, my suffering was public and political that nearly led to the demise of my career in politics.

Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady

Excerpted with permission from Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady, Hisila Yami, Penguin Books India.

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