In the Himalayas, where the enormous sky and silent mountains know how to put a man in his place, a Kremlinologist and former Washington columnist lives in a mud-and-stone hut that clings to the side of a hill.
He draws his water from a well and cooks a breakfast of flat Indian bread over an open fire made from wood he has scrounged for himself. The villagers, at first suspicious of this strange foreigner, now tell him about their worries over the harvest and the problems with their wives. He writes it all down, then sends it out as a weekly column for The Times of London.
A decade ago, Victor Zorza was living in Washington and prowling through stacks of Soviet Bloc newspapers, always on the lookout for clues that might help explain the Russians to his western readers. He lived comfortably in Foxhall Village, an odd duck of a columnist who didn't go to briefings or Washington lunches, but who had an international reputation as an extraordinary analyst of Soviet policy. In 1968 his column won the British equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, for predicting the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Yes, Zorza thought, he was making his contribution to the world.
Then in 1977, his 25-year-old daughter Jane died of melanoma, one of the most painful forms of cancer. Zorza and his wife Rosemary wrote a book about it, partly as a catharsis and partly to promote the kind of hospice in which their daughter had died. But as they were finishing that book, "A Way to Die," in 1979, Zorza had a heart bypass operation. His doctors told him afterward he probably had a year to live.
"That was the final trigger," he says. "I said to myself, 'If that's so, then this thing I've wanted to do all these years, I'm going to do it.' "
That thing was to write about "three-quarters of the world's population," the rural poor of the developing countries, in a different way from covering their lives after a mud slide, cyclone or other natural disaster.
"After all, that is not the truth about people's lives," says Zorza, 60, talking by a crackling fire in a cold, run-down hotel a day's bus ride and walk from the village.
He wanted routine, family squabbles, political melodrama -- proof that illiterate paupers are rich men when it comes to the complexities of emotion. He wandered all over India before settling in the Himalayas, in a village of 300 people, whose power struggles center on the divide between the high-caste Brahmans and the Harijans, or untouchables. He insists on keeping the name of the village secret to protect the privacy of the people. They speak a Hindi hill dialect, so he works through an interpreter.
Zorza has lived in this village off and on since 1981, but he always takes long summer breaks in England with his wife. He has also spent time in other villages around India for different perspectives. At this writing, he has moved from the original village to a new one in another part of the Himalayas, but he says this may only be temporary. The original village is where he has done his best work, and where his emotions run deepest. His columns about it have appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post and most recently in The Times of London.
Zorza has gone from predicting the fall of Nikita Khrushchev to untangling the intrigue between the Brahmans and Harijans over the annual buffHnderstand these people on an emotional level, westerners will not just respond periodically with "guilt money" and "crocodile tears." Unless there is understanding, Zorza says he is sure there will be a slow disintegration toward "social breakdown," or a massive revolt of the world's have-nots against the haves. "This cannot go on," he says.
In the meantime, he has sacrificed seeing much of his son Richard, a public defender in Boston, and living with his wife, who remains in their country house outside London. She developed breast cancer last year, and although Zorza went back to see her through the mastectomy, he returned to India a few months later. He says he and Rosemary are not separated in the usual sense of the word, that they are still happy as "man and wife." He says she accepts his decision to live in the village -- although not so readily these days as she did at first. "The separation is weighing much more heavily on us than we thought it would," he says. He is thinking of spending more time with her next year.
On one level, his story is that of the idealist who had the nerve or the need to give up everything. But in looking at his life closely, it is impossible not to see that a major theme over 60 years has been, simply, death. Zorza has run from it, fought with it, defied it and now, in his village, come to terms with it. Certainly he has thought more about it than most people.
He is a Polish Jew, the only one of his family to have survived the Holocaust. He almost died himself, at 16, in a World War II bombing raid on the German-Russian border. He lied about his Jewishness to save his life, but then in England masqueraded as a Catholic for years after it was no longer necessary, always afraid in the back of his mind that if 6 million died once, it might happen again. He denied to himself for months that his daughter Jane was really dying, remaining in Washington while she was in a hospital in London, facing it only after he confessed to her his own fears about death in the final days of her life. That changed him profoundly.
"Talking to her about life and death made a far more human person out of me," he says.
That pushed him a little nearer to the village, adding a "human dimension" to something he had already considered in theory. Jane had always wanted him to write about the poor, particularly after a trip she took to India that left her horrified by the misery she saw. But it was not until after his heart operation, when he was faced with his own death once again, that Zorza rejected the advice of his doctors and finally went off to the mountains to stare the inevitable in its face. There he conquered it, for now.
It happened one morning on his usual two-hour walk. He had left the hut, forgetting to take his daily medication to ease the constriction of his blood vessels. Until then, he had been certain the medication was responsible for his survival. It wasn't until he got to the top of a peak, out of breath and exhausted, that he realized that he had not taken it. "I opened my eyes and I said, 'That's it! I'm out! I'm free! I'm clear!' I was a new person no longer needing to think about dying."
Victor Zorza is a taut, compact man, with a perpetually furrowed brow and a face lined and tanned by the sun. He is almost bald, with a full, graying beard. On this afternoon he is encased against the chill in several thick sweaters and a heavy pair of hiking boots. He looks like he might be a serious trekker in town for a little R&R, but the fact is, he is not a relaxing man to spend time with.
He has been described over the years as a perfectionist and an extremist, but a better word might be absolutist. Like many men devoted to a cause, he does not often step back and look at life with irony or much humor, preferring to see the world in more cataclysmic terms. But then, perhaps only such a disciplined believer could live the kind of life he does.
"It's a very physically taxing existence," he says. "I enjoy walking in the mountains, but I don't enjoy the hardships of life. I don't wear a hair shirt. But I do find it bearable. I don't have reason to complain."
He always gives 110 percent to whatever he is doing. In the case of this interview, that means he talks nearly nonstop for several hours, in a soft English accent with an Eastern European lilt, making sure to drive his points home. He has come to this hotel because he is adamant about not having visitors at the village. He says an American college professor who had read his columns found his way there, uninvited, in 1983, and asked questions about the village tradition of polyandry, the illegal practice of two or more husbands for one wife. The villagers blamed him for the unexpected visitor, certain that the stranger was an official sent to arrest them. After the professor left, Zorza says the villagers made life so uncomfortable for him that he himself had to leave for a while. "They were never angry with me; they were angry with 'outsiders,' " he says. "They will never tell a guest he's unwelcome, but they make it very clear."
Zorza returned to the village last October and spent the fall and winter working his way into the people's good graces. He says he can't risk the appearance of another outsider. "It would destroy five years of work," he says.
He asks that the town in which he has agreed to meet not be named, either, for fear that it will be a tip-off to the location of the village. He comes here every few weeks to buy vegetables, to rest and to pick up his mail at the Indian family's home that he uses as a base.
In the village, his day usually begins at 4 a.m., when the village drummer sounds his reveille. Soon the coughs and morning noises of Zorza's neighbors can be heard through the thin mud walls. The villagers head for the fields so they can be there at daybreak, but Zorza takes his two-hour walk up the side of a mountain. He does it for exercise, but also to relieve himself in private. After five years, he still can't bring himself to squat down in the open, communal fashion, as is the custom among the villagers.
After breakfast he takes another long walk, through the dry, barren hills to the fields, where he meets up with the villagers as they're taking their midmorning break.
"I sit around and chat," Zorza says. His interpreter is an Indian free-lance journalist, Veenu Sandal, a woman in her thirties who is a daughter in the family he lives with when he's in town. "I used to ask questions, but I've learned that that is very counterproductive because your questions betray what you're interested in. The villagers want to please, so they'll tell you what they think you want to know. They are very, very intelligent. So you wait for them to tell you things that are on their minds. You hear from person A about person B, and about person B from person C, and you slowly build that up. In that respect it's not unlike Kremlinology, because it really is putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle."
He goes home for lunch -- usually rice, boiled cauliflower, carrots or cabbage, and dal, an Indian lentil stew. He writes down the important points of the morning chat (he finds taking notes in front of the villagers too distracting for them) and then begins work on a column. "Sometimes I may work on a particular story for three months before it is ready for the telling," he says. "At any one time I may have a dozen possible column topics in mind."
The columns ran monthly in the Outlook section of The Washington Post during 1982 and 1983. They centered on so much deprivation and backwardness that it was a wonder there was any common ground with most readers, yet most of them fascinated and moved people. By the time the series was over, Zorza had achieved his goal of involving his readers on an emotional level, of showing them that the loves, hurts and ambitions of the villagers were not all that removed from their own.
In one of those columns, titled "Chicago Has Nothing on Indian Village Politics," the leader of the Harijans, a man whom Zorza calls Vijay, is running for village headman. He gives a lavish feast to shore up support among his fellow Harijans, which any Washington campaign director would immediately recognize as protecting his base. But after his base voters sober up, they begin to wonder who has paid for the fun. The benefactor turns out to be the leader of the opposing camp of Brahmans. Vijay admits to his people that he has made a secret deal with the Brahman leader: Support me as headman, and I'll keep the Harijans in their place when I win.
"The man who had posed as their champion had sold out," Zorza wrote.
But Vijay comes back to his constituents with a classic defense: I need the support of at least some of the Brahmans to win, he tells them. But you are my people, and when I get to the top, I will take care of you.
That was three years ago. Zorza's new columns in The Times will explore what really happened to the man he called Vijay, although this time he will use his real name, and the real names of the others. The villagers at first requested anonymity, but Zorza says they have come to trust him enough to drop the request.
Year by year in the village, he says, he understands a little bit more. "Some of the things I'm writing now are the very opposite of what I used to say before," he says. "The people who in the past I regarded as goodies I've found are baddies, and vice versa." In the early years the villagers lied to him a lot, Zorza says, usually by exaggerating their poverty in hopes of getting money from him. "By our terms, they are indeed very, very poor," he says, "but not in Indian terms. Often the harvest doesn't last through until the next season, but they borrow, and they manage. They don't go absolutely hungry."
One thing missing from the columns is a sense of Zorza himself. Although they are written in the first person, it is in a sterile, detached style, with one declarative sentence after another. Zorza says he does that deliberately to avoid imposing his western judgments on the villagers, but it leaves a reader wondering how much Zorza himself has changed since he came to the village.
His old Washington friends would see that the considerable ego and intensity are still there. But Zorza says he has changed "into a person guided more by emotion and feeling for other human beings.
"Like so many other do-gooders, I used to think that I just loved people and that my work was for the benefit of the people of the world. But they were people in the abstract," he says. "The world was a sort of artificial construct. Now I know that it's people in the flesh, whom I live with and care for." He looks back on his Washington life as "utter nonsense," a time when "I didn't see the world beyond my column, nor myself apart from it."
By evening time in the village, the people return from the fields and collect in the central square to gossip until it gets dark. Zorza and his interpreter are out there with them. At nightfall, sometimes the villagers make a fire from dry branches for warmth and light. "They make a lovely crackling sound, and some sparks fly," says Zorza. "So the evenings can be very, very pleasant."
He goes home for dinner, makes a few notes by the light of an oil lamp, and is in bed by 8. If he has finished a column, it is sent out by foot messenger the next day to town, then given to another messenger who takes it by bus to New Delhi. From there it is either mailed or sent by telex to London.
"There is no time to get lonely," he says.
Victor Zorza was born Victor Wermuth in Kolomyja, a town of 30,000 in what was then eastern Poland and is now a part of the Soviet Union, in 1925. He was the son of a small-town journalist, educated in the local schools until the Russians invaded in 1939. That year, at the age of 14, Zorza was deported with 2 1/2 million other Poles to Siberia. He was separated from his parents, and never saw them again.
When he arrived in what he describes as "a sort of primeval forest," the Russians "gave us axes and saws and said, 'Cut down your trees and build your huts.' And that was that." A few months later he managed to escape, hoping to get back to Poland, even though he knew the Germans had sent most of the Jews there to concentration camps. "I was driven by a kind of desperation," he says.
He train-hopped along the trans-Siberian railway, staying with Russian families "who took pity on an orphan boy." It was at this point, he says, that "I acquired this feeling for the Russian people, as distinct from the system." When he finally made it to the border, he was caught in the German bombing raid that almost killed him, forcing him back into the interior of Russia.
"We were just behind the front on the Russian side," he told Jane while she was in the hospital, as he described it in "A Way to Die." He was traveling with other refugees, on a cart pulled by a tractor, when suddenly he saw bullets kicking up the dust. The tractor driver and the others dove into a ditch. Zorza thought he could do them one better and ran for a small culvert. He stuck his head in, but his body wouldn't fit. He heard bombs, then felt stones and clods of earth beating his body. It lasted just a moment.
"I pulled my head out of the culvert and looked around," he told Jane. "There wasn't much left of the tractor driver or one or two others. I was weak with fear, with a kind of delayed panic."
He managed to get out of Russia by signing up with a group of Poles who were being sent to England to train with the Royal Air Force. But he first changed his name from Wermuth to Zorza, the Polish word for dawn, fearing that a Jew would be rejected by the elite unit he was joining. A few months later he was in London, still passing himself off as a Catholic. When the war was over he could have told the truth, but as Zorza said to Jane, "I got in deeper and deeper."
"A Polish Jew isn't a Pole, he's a Jew," he told her. "And here I was masquerading as a true-blooded Pole, accepted as such, listening to jokes about Jews, and downright obscenities, and remaining silent."
When he married, he told Rosemary that his mother had been Jewish. And over the years, he says, the truth "came out in bits and pieces. It was a very slow process, within the family, and outside the family." He becomes embarrassed. "It makes me look and sound a bit of a creep," he says. "And you see, I don't think I am a creep."
Zorza stayed with the Royal Air Force until 1948, when he joined the BBC as a monitor of the Soviet broadcasts. By 1956 he was writing his weekly "communist world" column for the Manchester Guardian, and by the early '70s, when he made Washington his base, his analysis was appearing in newspapers all over the world, including The Washington Post.
The column consistently ran against the prevailing orthodoxy, and frequently infuriated U.S. policy makers. It was said that the column was often so detailed that it could be understood only by the 17 best informed people in town. Yet over the years Zorza basked in scoop after scoop; he wrote of the Sino-Soviet split, for instance, years before it was publicly acknowledged.
Inevitably there were rumors about his real purpose in Washington. "There were some people who suspected me of -- well, not working for the Russians, but of being soft on the Russians," he says. "And the Russians of course, the KGB, were absolutely sure I was working for the CIA, and often denounced me in their papers as working for the CIA, but one of my assistants in Washington was the son of a high CIA official, and his father had warned him to watch out because I was a suspect character."
He stopped writing the column to work on the book about Jane, but says it never would have been completed without the collaboration of his wife. "Hers was the inspiration, hers was the determination and hers were the most human touches in the book," he says. Published in the United States by Knopf in 1980, "A Way to Die" is deeply moving but at times so graphic in its descriptions of the pain Jane endured that it is difficult for the uninitiated to read.
That is because the Zorzas wrote it for the people they had been -- for cancer patients and their families. "We knew that in order to help people," Zorza says, "we had to be absolutely ruthless with ourselves and Jane. You don't speak ill of the dead, but we show that there were times when she was a bitch. And the trouble is that everybody who is going through that cancer situation, patient or family, behaves in the worst possible way about it, and feels guilty. We wanted to tell people this is natural, it cannot fail to happen."
Up here in the mountains, Zorza talks about Jane easily, without apparent pain. But at one point, he mentions a conversation about dying he once had with Jane in the hospital, although instead of "Jane" he says "Veenu," the name of his village researcher. She is about the age that Jane would have been had she lived.
Told of the slip, Zorza smiles. "You see," he says, "to me Veenu is a daughter now."
It has become dark outside, with quiet streets and bright stars in the cold sky. Inside, the fire has finally warmed the room. Zorza is drinking tea and consuming most of a bar of Swiss milk chocolate, clearly content for the moment to be back in civilization, such as it is.
He has been in much better health in the village, but he still has been sick much of the time with diarrhea and stomach troubles. Those are times, he says, "when I begin to doubt whether I really want to be doing this. Sometimes I get very tired, physically tired, and I ask myself, 'Am I right in putting a higher value on a visionary ideal than on the happiness of my immediate family and myself?' "
There is a long pause. Finally, slowly, he says, "The answer to that won't be known for several generations. You see, if what I'm doing is taken on by others, it will still take several generations to change people's attitudes . . . but by going home I'd be giving up all this." His soft voice begins rising. "No, there's something still to be done," he says, with conviction. "And it very badly needs to be done."
Now he becomes impassioned. "And I'm not just talking about the abstract forces of history!" he says. "I'm talking about human beings! And I know how they live!"
The next morning is quiet, warm and intoxicating. The sky is a deep blue, the kind only seen high in the mountains. Zorza is sunning himself on the hotel balcony. He already has said this morning that, yes, to die in the village would be fine. Now he is happily imagining his funeral.
The villagers would take his body to the banks of the river for cremation, he says, "and the drummer would drum, and his sons would dance, and people would make funny remarks about this strange foreigner."
He is warming to the subject. "But the best thing about it," he says enthusiastically, "would be the obituaries. Because instead of concentrating on my achievements in Kremlinology, this would be a good enough story for them to talk about the village. And you know I'm a newspaperman first and last." He seems a little disappointed that he won't be around to write it.
"And they could not help examining my motives and reasons," he says, "and maybe they would even publish some columns posthumously. And then, maybe, people will see that it's worth doing.
"I think it would be the best death possible."