Those who believe they have left an imprint on history usually end up writing an autobiographical memoir, which, as a narrative device, allows the author much leeway. A memoir depends on the author’s interpretation of history, which means most of them are written towards the end of a career, when the author doesn’t particularly need to worry about critical judgements. The genre stands out equally for those who haven’t written one—our kings, for instance—as for those who have.
In Nepal, the tradition of the memoir has mostly been co-opted by politicians and bureaucrats. Some, like BP Koirala’s Atmabritanta, give us a ringside view of history as well as an insight into the ideas that shaped him. Others, like GP Koirala’s Aafno Kura, are more about the actions of the individual than self-reflection. Needless to say, a majority of memoirs in Nepal are written by men.
Former Maoist leader Hisila Yami’s memoir, Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady, is thus a welcome break in this all-male tradition. For example, is it any surprise that despite the Maoists’ claims towards gender equality and caste consciousness, the higher echelons of the party were mostly upper-caste Brahmin men, and only two women—Pampha Bhusal and Yami herself—were inducted into the politburo after the Maoist conflict started? And that Yami herself faced discrimination and slander within the party, all because she came from Kathmandu and was educated and outspoken? As she writes, ‘The impression most leaders had of me was that, at best, I was modern, smart and amusing; and, at worst, a bit out of place, too frank and an embarrassment to [Baburam Bhattarai].’
Yami’s feminist leaning also makes room for a different perspective of the conflict and why many women joined the movement. There may be differing views on whether the Maoists actually succeeded in making a difference to Nepali women’s lives, but there can be no doubt that the foundation of the movement’s widespread popularity rested on its appeal to women and marginalised people.
Like all political memoirs, Yami toes her ideological lines, and rarely strays from the belief that the Maoists changed Nepal. Expectedly, she is kinder towards her husband; but here, too, is a departure from the usual. Memoirs in general do not discuss personal affairs, but Yami does not shy from that. There is a moment of great poignancy when she talks about her firstborn who was declared dead within fourteen hours. ‘I felt like I had lost a part of my body, my soul, which I had carefully nurtured for the first time.’ And equally, when she talks about raising her daughter Manushi, and staying away from her during the war.
The memoir is particularly delicious in its honest snark—much of which is directed towards Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the other Maoist leaders. For instance, ‘Prachanda’s name…in my opinion, does not match his character… He preached like a revolutionary but was unreliable.’ In another instance, Yami writes, ‘I was astonished to discover [Dahal’s] drinking habits. It was understood that he should not be contacted after 8 pm’ Yami calls Ram Bahadur Thapa (who called himself Badal) ‘a cloud that produces a rumble without any rain’, and asserts he was not the military commander of the PLA as had been believed (although she does not tell us who the real commander was).
To me, however, there are two gaps in the text that should have been addressed. The first is the reversal of the Maoist assurance to GP Koirala that the latter would become republic Nepal’s first president, which was a grave error that eroded the politics of consensus that brought the Maoists to mainstream politics. The reader would have preferred Yami’s perspective on the Maoists’ reversal.
The second and more pertinent gap is that Yami’s memoir rushes through the promulgation of the 2015 constitution, the launch of the Naya Shakti Party and its eventual merger with Upendra Yadav’s Sanghiya Samajwadi Party. Beyond addressing the 2015 statute’s discriminatory position on women’s rights, the book would have done well to reflect on the decay of the Maoist movement—not just the party, but also its ideas—in the years since the statute’s promulgation.
One can now say without a doubt that Dahal’s penchant for dealmaking and power politics has been one of the key reasons why the movement has come to be vilified by the ordinary Nepali. The Maoists have abandoned the values of inclusion that brought them the support of the marginalised, and by joining hands with the CPN-UML, they are now as politically conservative as the average Oli supporter.
Here, one admires Yami’s belief in social justice, one of the primary motivations for her to join the movement in the first place. But much of the talk around social justice in Nepal has been limited to the political sphere, and rarely has it crossed over into the socio-cultural sphere, as it should. The Maoist movement succeeded in bringing down the monarchy, but an honest assessment would suggest it failed to transcend politics and transform Nepali society. The Communist movement in Nepal, in fact, stands out for its dogmatic conservatism. With both their feet stuck in the past, it is no surprise that Nepali Communists rarely hold a modernist view.
My personal view is that Nepal needed an Ambedkar and found itself a Koirala, which is why successive revolutions and movements have withered away once the protagonists—again, usually Brahmin men—enjoyed the spoils of power and retained the status quo. Beyond ideological dogma, what Nepal needs is a deep restructuring of the state and society alongside Ambedkar’s push for affirmative action. Without that, all revolutions will only lead to a change in faces, but not in society.
Yami’s memoir, however, is remarkable not just for its outspoken nature, but also her willingness to deal with uncomfortable subjects, and to write about subjects Nepali men rarely touch upon. She gives us a ringside view into how the Maoists saw themselves, and more importantly, on how revolutions falter. As Yami writes, ‘Nepali society, in general, still finds it difficult to stomach women who are independent, bold, loud and fearless.’ Yami, whether you agree or disagree with her views, certainly fits the bill.
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