A candid talk with Arzu Rana, prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's wife, on everything from the curtains in Baluwatar to land reform.
Nepali Times: You were quite forthright when you came out and said your family was pestering you about your husband's land reform proposal.
Arzu Rana: I have a big mouth, as my husband always says. He says why don't you learn to keep quiet sometimes. But it is too late to change, I talk too much. And sometimes you invevitably make a faux-pas.
How is it being first lady this time around?
I am older, wiser, and my son is not a baby anymore and needs less attention. Last time I was totally zapped by what was going on. I was just married, and became the prime minister's wife. At the time I was like a chicken in a coop, limited to family and few professional people. This time I guess I am more worldly wise. I know Nepal better.
Are you more relaxed about it?
I guess so. The first time I was really scared, I did not know if I could get a haircut or not, whether I could wear salwar-kamij.
How did you find Baluwatar this time?
It was clean, but it badly needs renovation. I think the last time anything was done was when we were there. I now realise it is not a house for a family, there have only been bachelors or prime ministers with grown-up children living there. It is a government house and it does not have a proper system to take care of it. It shouldn't be the job of the prime minister's wife to set things up.
Have the curtains you put up last time been changed?
Yes they have been changed but some things are still around. Like the nails I had struck on the wall (laughs). I felt nostalgic and said to myself, "Oh! This was where I used to hang my pote six years ago". But all this reflects on the system not on the inhabitants of the house. If they'd take my advice which my husband thinks is too frank, the job of upkeep should be contracted out to a private group. Now in Baluwatar there are more than 50 support staff but nobody to supervise them. It depends entirely on the prime minister's wife or daughter to get them going.
Sounds like our country in a microcosm.
Yes, if this is the state of the prime minister's residence, it reflects the state of the country. Wires running all over the place, things broken, never repaired, hundreds of old things lying around. These are small housekeeping points but they tell a lot. The old dish antenna is on the lawn because as I was told you can not dispose it as trash but have to put it on a truck, take it to some government storehouse and account for it. I told them that all the costs involved doing that was a waste, but rules are rules, and the old things continue to pile up.
Is it true you are into astrology?
To a certain extent, yes I believe in good vibes. As for astrology, I am a selective believer, I believe when I want to and don't when I don't.
Is Mr Deuba also into it?
Which politician isn't? In Nepal and India, even China. I think most Asian cultures believe in the supernatural. I am not a total believer but have had astrologers telling us our fate from childhood.
What will happen to your social service work now?
This time I thought I will stop working, and even stayed home for one week. But I nearly went mad. There was nothing to do, so I decided to go back to work.
Were you surprised about the result of your recent study on violence against women?
It is very sad, we didn't expect to find such horrible results, like most rape victims being under 19, victims of polygamy being under 40. Those were not our assumptions. We could not say why all that was happening. The incest cases were highest in the so-called higher castes. We've seen that class, caste, education do not make you an exception.
Will the new law relating to property rights change things?
It is a very long road, I don't think major change will come overnight. If the legislation does pass, some things will change. The last time we did anything for women was in 1975 when we changed a rule enabling daughters to inherit. In my own family, my grandfather had many wives, and some of my aunts were the only daughters of the wives and they could not inherit anything. Some had miserable lives while sons from other wives got everything. They changed that, and a lot of daughters benefited. Of course awareness helps, but strategically legal change makes a lot of difference. In the last 10 years, Nepali women have become more vocal. To talk about incest is not easy. We wanted to do this study when we began Sathi in 1992 but we were too scared that people might call us perverted or mad. We didn't dare do the study then.
You grew up in a Rana family with a sequestered upbringing. How difficult has it been to adjust?
School was St Mary's and it had a selective crowd, my parents would not send me even to a friend's home until their parents were known. Then I went to another elite college in India, where they had roll calls thrice a day, just to make sure girls were still there. We were served by gloved waiters. Then at 21 I went to Punjab University, and it was the biggest shock of my life. This was the real world. They served food in steel plates, aluminium spoons. There were flies everywhere, they threw chapattis on your plates as if feeding dogs. The bathrooms had cockroaches. It was a real education. When I started working I came across guys who thought I got my job because I was a Rana girl with a pretty face. As long as I was just Arzu everything was fine, the moment I said Rana there used to be a glass wall. It was not easy to make people accept me.
My social work has helped me. It brought me into contact with different kinds of people, and I like meeting them and finding out about their problems. But sometimes I do feel hemmed in, especially returning home after a long hard day and finding a large number of people in front of my house and a drawing room smelling of socks. But I have learnt to live with it.
They're calling you Nepal's Hillary Clinton. Do you have a say in policy-making?
Not much. My husband is very liberal, but is a typical far-West man. Which means you don't ever listen to what your wife says. That is their bottom line. Unconsciously maybe my concerns filter through, but consciously he never listens to me. I have also learnt that if I want him to do something, I must never say this is right and this should be done. He says sarcastically: "Are you saying that because you have a PhD?"
You must have a lot of people coming to you for favours.
Yes, but he never listens.
How about your social service and gender work?
To an extent, on things like caste, gender and discrimination, I talk to him. He will listen. When I went to his district for the first time I was horrified by the caste system. I talked to him about it and he asked me what should he be doing about it-as a social reformer and politician? Now he has helped dismantle many caste barriers. If you know how conservative the far west is, you'll realise what a very bold decision it was.
Did you have a say in the decision?
I don't know whether I had a say because he never told me he was taking that decision, but he had been getting earfuls from me. I used to ask how could this be going on? There has to be a conscious effort to eradicate such beliefs. But it can be an uphill battle. I think many of our family members are angry with the decision back in Dadeldhura. I used to tell them frankly that because my grandmother was a Newar and we Ranas did not care much about caste, I did not care about it. Things have been easy for me because I am an outsider in the family.
You've been with your husband in the highs and lows of his political life. How has he handled it?
I think he has immense internal strength. I say that because I have human failings I get angry at times, and I don't think I have a very large heart. He is ready to forgive anyone for anything. It could be because he was tortured in jail, although he hardly talks about it. He sees only the positive things in life, and it must not be easy for him. It was real battle as you all saw. He didn't have an extensive family to help him, he doesn't have a lot of money but he always had this belief "because I have done a lot for the party, people support me". I used to tell him at times, why don't you break the party and go on your own. His reply was that it took a lot of effort to build it I can't just walk out of it. He's not an extreme personality, he likes to talk to both sides and this makes some people think he is too lenient or forgiving. He thinks there can be no productive gain from being extreme.
Who is advising your husband on day-to-day decisions?
Nobody. He is advising himself. He listens to everybody, to cabinet members, his friends in the Congress but does not take any formal advice. He is a political animal. There is nothing else but politics: no wife, no children, family, house and wealth. He has only one aim in life, he wants to be a good prime minister and leave his mark. He wants to be a man of history. Wealth does not make a difference to him. He does not care where he stays, what he eats. He is ok with saag and bhat, or with five-star cuisine. The material part is beyond him because after you have suffered a lot I think all that becomes immaterial. So I am surprised when his other colleague are not like him because they have shared common problems and sufferings.
Since he doesn't seem to listen to you about politics, is there a question you want to ask your husband through us?
My only concern for this country is that if systems are not in place-the ideology may be there, the will may be there-implementing what politicians promise will be very difficult. You need to set up a system, a delivery mechanism that works efficiently. So they better start doing their housekeeping. Otherwise all these progressive new laws are not going to work, and nothing will change, no amount of foreign aid will help. My husband says look so far the papers were writing good things about us and bashing the old prime minister, now we are in the hot seat and anything we do will be criticised.
But you're getting a good press.
So far yes, except the Samrakchhan (NT #54) thing in which I was involved. I have resigned now, but my god what a disaster! It is a lesson in how good intentions can go really bad. I think the media reports were also politically motivated. I am very impulsive by nature, and the satisfaction now is that I was not the only one duped, even businessmen were fooled. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Now I realise that to profit from it you have to get into it in the beginning. We have a big problem on our hands with about 5,000 people in the scheme. We are telling the government you better have regulations because we went to the company registrar. We were registered and thought it was fine. I had asked the lawyer if it was legal and he said yes. Personally I did not buy it, because I am a very bad salesman and knew I could not sell to three people.
So your husband doesn't need your help?
In Nepal people don't like to see women meddling. In our country patriarchy is seeped in hearts and minds.