The title of Hisila Yami’s memoir Hisila: From Revolutionary to First Lady (2021) presents only a vignette of the life of an extrovert, mobile and what she claims to be, a garrulous and “socialite” person and freedom fighter. The title presents as though this is the tale of a hard-core guerrilla revolutionary woman who ended up being the first lady or the wife of the erstwhile Maoist guerrilla leader and prime minister of the land Baburam Bhattarai. On the contrary, the strength of this book lies not in the limitations set by the above nomenclatures, but in the protagonist Hisila Yami’s smooth crossing of the borders. This memoir covers the span of Yami’s life from her student days to the present, when she writes poetry and appears in political events of the Janata Samajbadi Party, their latest political experiment.
Hisila is not the first guerrilla woman I have met. I have met some of them including Sita BK. I have written an introduction to the second edition of her recollection of an active guerrilla life with the subtitle Memoirs of Sita BK covering a period from 1999 to 2006. I have not seen the second edition yet. The other biography of a Maoist guerrilla that I have read is entitled Prachanda: The Unknown Revolutionary (2008), written by an Indian journalist Anirban Roy. I was asked to give the keynote speech at the launch of this book on September 19, 2008. Subash Nembang, chairman of the Constituent Assembly who had unveiled the book about the “unknown revolutionary” urged prime minister Prachanda to work earnestly for the new constitution. Hisila Yami’s book of memoirs is significantly different from the above two books, although some of her experiences on the battlefield are similar to those of Sita BK. But Hisila did not fight with a gun in her hand. Her roles were different. She was both an unobtrusive observer as well as a vocal leader.
Hisila Yami’s book is the story of different fuzzy borders between canons and ruptures, gender and caste, hard-core politics and free movements of a woman whose life is crowded with both major and minuscule political events that happened in less than a quarter of a century in her life. The main feature of this memoir is the role of the intense liminal moments in the active life of Hisila Yami. One such moment came in 1996 when her husband and comrade Baburam Bhattarai informed her that they were “leaving soon for the People’s War”. Leaving incomplete the house that she was building by utilising the money she had saved from her scholarship in Newcastle, Britain and her daughter Manushi’s child benefit, Hisila Yami prepared herself to leave. Many liminal and liminoid moments came in her life, but this one was the strongest and the sharpest, which becomes clear from this expression, “Looking back, I realised that I was burning all the bridges to my past, to my secure and normal life, as I crossed the border.” (59). Therefore, this memoir is, to use her expression, “the holistic” picture of her life that she has lived with “simple convictions” consciously and philosophically.
The philosophical part comes out in her observation about the nature of the revolution and the revolutionaries, especially the three leaders Prachanda, Baburam and Kiran, whose characters she sums up by using a body politic of the unique order. She says Prachanda represented the “heart for the cadre that gave them a sense of security and comfort”, Baburam “represented the head for them” that “gave vision and clarity”, and Kiran represented the kidney that “filtered Marxism-Leninism-Maoism” for them (303-4). This observation of Yami was valid in the situation she depicts in her memoir, but the need for that balance has already been deconstructed by history. The leaders have been grappling with different fuzzy borders of politics, theory and pragmatism today.
Hisila says she always wanted to tell her own stories about her life at home, school and university. A graduate in architecture from the School of Planning and Architecture, where she met Baburam Bhattarai (BRB), Hisila moves through different corridors of life, as it were. Her marriage to BRB as the memoir shows, totally transformed her life. She confesses she saw the accurate picture of Nepal when she joined the People’s War. She has depicted the life of Maoist women guerrillas and narrated some of their harrowing tales. I find this a valuable section in her book. Hisila’s stories are not like the tales of the Naxalite women, nor are they like the diaries of the Kurdish women guerrillas. They are the stories of a free woman.
Hisila Yami’s description of the two different personalities of Prachanda and BRB is an excellent read in this memoir. She has made it clear that despite differences between Prachanda and other leaders, she admires their work. She has no grudge against any of them. She has described the nature of BRB very candidly in different sections of this memoir. After describing the colossal rise of BRB, Hisila adds, “In stark contrast, I felt my position and image both inside and outside the party suffering after he became the PM.” (282). The strength of this book is that Hisila Yami does not suppress her subjectivity in her narratives. In the narratives of guerrilla women, their subjectivity occupies vital space in both academic and historical discussions. I have no room to discuss that here. But Hisila’s memoirs say she never allowed herself to be caught in the dilemma of speaking or not speaking. The fact of the matter is that she speaks. As I said earlier, she moves across the fuzzy borders in matters of gender, caste and political ideologies (she welcomed BRB’s decision to leave the Maoist party, for which she had spent so many years, without qualms).
At some point, Hisila says she had to write this memoir to fulfil a responsibility because BRB being a shy person would not write his own stories. Apart from the above-cited book written by Anirban Roy, Prachanda would never write about his own life. Kiran, despite being a literary writer, does not write about his life but only about the Marxist literary canons. But some women guerrillas have written important memoirs.
Hisila Yami’s memoir has a literary quality that has drawn me more than anything else. In this memoir of Hisila, the most transitional period of Nepali history moves through characters that shift, ideologies that change, and moments of Nepali history that become alive through what Walter Benjamin calls messianic power.