THE OLD VILLAGE DRUMMER rushed into the temple square, his face bleeding. His two sons and their wife followed. I joined the small crowd which began to gather around them. A rich farmer had driven them from their field and proclaimed it his own.

"He can't do that to you," I said.

"You try and stop him, then," the villagers challenged me.

The small field, confiscated from an absentee landlord, had been given to the drummer half a dozen years ago by a government determined to emancipate the poor. The family worked hard to clear the rocky, barren slope of stones. They leveled the ground, terraced it, and built a wall to keep wild animals and straying cattle away. But after their first good harvest three years ago, a rich farmer accused them of appropriating his land.

The drummer promptly produced the government land deed, but the farmer tore it up, abusing him roundly. "The government can't touch me," he shouted. He said that he had bought the field from the absentee owner. No government had a right to give it to the drummer. Yet he made no immediate move to evict him.

The drummer was the first villager with whom I struck up a friendship, probably because he had more time to talk to me. While the others were in the fields, he had to stay in the village square to beat the drum for the temple services, five or six times a day, and to act as the village barber. He was one of the poorest men in the village, and one of the happiest -- always smiling, singing, joking and asking questions about the strange world I came from. What was it, I once asked him, that kept him so cheerful?

At first, he recalled, he had owned nothing. Even the drums belonged to the village. Then he got the land. The village bought a wife for his two sons -- polyandry is a time-honored custom here -- and he now had a growing family. With their new field, they no longer had to rely entirely on the charity of the village for their food. "Wouldn't you be happy?" he asked.

But soon I noticed that his family was spending more time in their field, and less on the open windy platform by the temple which the village had given them for a dwelling. Someone still had to be there most of the time to beat the drum for the temple services. But when a villager wanted a shave, or a village elder needed a messenger, the drummer was often in his field. "You're a landowner now," the villagers teased him. "Barbering is beneath you."

It was all quite good-natured at first. At harvest time the drummer still went from house to house to collect his gifts of grain. A villager could still have his shave, though sometimes he had to wait two weeks instead of the usual one. The payment was one roti -- a pancake made of coarse grain -- for shaving one week's growth, and two rotis for two weeks', so the drummer was no worse off.

Gradually the mood changed. The drummer wasn't always so sunny. At harvest time some families sent him away empty-handed. "Don't you grow your own grain now?" they asked. After a shave, a villager would tell him to collect his payment later. Yet, when he tried again, he would be told to return some other time.

But the old drummer was still the friend of the village. His platform in the temple square, the only home with no walls to keep out friendly or idle neighbors, is a natural gathering place.

The villagers linger around the platform to exchange gossip, to argue, to flirt.

After dark the drummer sometimes beats his drum, his son blows his horn, and a line of dancers winds sinuously around the square, singing. A crackling firebrand, held high to light the square, gives off a pleasing pine-like smell.

The routine of village life obscures the tensions. They need his drumming to wake them at half past 4 every morning so that they can get to the fields at first light. And they need it to sound curfew at 10 every night. Reveille also wakes the village gods, while curfew warns that anyone venturing abroad risks an encounter with evil spirits -- who take over while the gods sleep. The village wouldn't want to lose its drummer, even if he has his own land now.

The drummer and his sons saw little of the rich farmer after their initial confrontation. He lives in another village. He was biding his time until they had done all they could to improve the land. The blow fell one morning at planting time, after they had toiled for weeks to prepare the soil for the new crop. At daybreak they found that the farmer's men had planted the field with rice by moonlight, braving the evil spirits. The drummer pleaded, shouted, cursed, then attacked with bare fists. The farmer shook him off, and his men beat the drummer until they drew blood.

In the village square the drummer wiped the blood off his face and appealed to the crowd for help. None was forthcoming. The villagers were glad he had been put in his place.

"But you haven't lost your land," I told him. "All you have to do is to take the case to court." He couldn't afford a three-day trip to town, he explained patiently. There would be the cost of searching the records, copying the documents, bribing the clerks. Even if he won, the farmer would appeal, the case drag on, the costs mount.

With his land gone, the age-old relationship between the drummer and the village was restored. The villagers won't let him starve. They do their duty by him, as long as he does his. Of course, he will again be utterly dependent on them for his living, but that is as it should be. That's why the gods ordained that there should be a drummer caste, and that its members should own no land.


THE VILLAGERS CROWDED around me pleading as thy pointed to the boy on the ground. He had been bitten by a snake, they said, and was going to die. Would I give him one of those magic foreign medicines that cured everything?

Durgu smiled weakly. "It wasn't a snake, and I'm not going to die." He had dipped his hand in the stream, and a fish darted up and nipped his finger. At least he thought it was a fish.

The witch doctor silenced him. "You can't tell a fish from a snake, they move so fast." A fish-bite needed no special treatment and would yield him no reward. He tied a charm around Durgu's wrist -- a dirty piece of string -- and chanted a prayer, darting quick, suspicious glances in my direction. "This is better than any foreign medicines," he muttered.

The boy's father quickly saw the opening. "Will you guarantee a cure, then?" He would indeed, but it would cost 150 rupees (about $20). The father offered him half. Even that he would have to borrow, he said, and it would take him a year to repay the loan. The villagers murmured their agreement, but the medicine man was adamant. If he was paid only half the amount, he could give no guarantee. "All right then" the father gave way. "I'll pay 150."

The witch doctor tightened the string until Durgu, a 13-year-old trying to act bravely, screamed with pain. "This will stop the poison spreading," he explained. Slowly the boy's hand began to swell. The charm had become a tourniquet.

Durgu cried out again. The quack was scraping his forearm with a rusty razor blade, chanting spells and prayers while he made quick, shallow incisions. Then he dropped his blade in the dust, pressed the wide opening of a cow's hollow horn against the cuts, sucked at the pointed end, and spat out the blood. I reached for my camera.

"Stop him," he yelled. "He has the evil eye."

The boy's father cringed with embarrassment, but couldn't afford to antagonize the witch doctor. The small crowd parted to let me go, but the father came too. Couldn't I give him the foreign medicine?

I had once given Durgu an aspirin to bring down the fever which often assails the villagers. He had occasionally acted as my guide in the mountains and we used those times to educate each other. I would point to the peaks, the valleys, the streams, say the words in English, and he would repeat them in the local dialect. We were both making progress. He showed me the herbs the villagers used to cure their ailments. When he grew up, he said, he would go to the city, bring back the magic medicines, and would banish illness from the mountain villages.

Was the razor-blade treatment really effective against snakebites, I asked Durgu's father. Sometimes yes, and sometimes no, he said. The medicine man didn't usually give a guarantee unless he was sure he could deliver a cure. It would damage his credibility. So it was worth paying the high fee. He spoke as if the logic of this was self-evident.

Sometimes, of course, the evil spirits would not be driven away, and that was why it would be as well to have had the foreign medicine. But it would have taken a whole day to reach a doctor who kept a supply of anti-snake serum, and another day to bring him to the village.

As the day wore on Durgu's condition failed to improve. The quack tried new remedies, but every hour or so he cut into the skin with the blade and sucked. The details of every new treatment, and of the way Durgu responded to it, spread quickly from hut to hut. Durgu had been bitten at daybreak. By the afternoon the witch doctor had shifted the tourniquet halfway up his arm. He gave Durgu an emetic to clear the poison out of his system, and the boy retched violently, repeatedly. His face went ashen. The piece of string was moved above his elbow. Then higher still. Was the poison spreading?

Women whispered as they passed each other. Children stopped playing. People gathered in small knots in the temple square. The whole village was as one family, anxious, hopeful and despondent by turns.

The witch doctor chanted, sucked, went into a trance. Then he began to mutter again about the foreigner's evil eye. Durgu's father desperately shoved him aside and poured into the boy's mouth a brew recommended by a neighbor. The witch doctor seized his opportunity. "You've interfered with my magic. I take back my guarantee." He picked up the cow's horn and the razor blade and walked away. No money changed hands.

By nightfall Durgu was dead.


TO BUY HIMSELF A WIFE, Dinu borrowed the money -- the equivalent of about $200 -- on the usual terms: He would remain a debt-slave until he worked off the loan. He was still a slave when I first met him, 17 years later, and offered to help him to freedom.

He was squatting outside my hut, where he sometimes stops for a chat on his way back from the fields. Tall and thin, in rags, with a long, sad face that hadn't been shaved for more than a week, he rose slowly as he answered. He would think about it, he said, and was gone.

Dinu had never had a home of his own. After his wedding, Ram Singh, the farmer who had lent him the money, let the couple sleep in the loft above the cattle-shed. They each got two meals a day and were promised new clothes once a year. But they would receive no wages until the loan was repaid. When his wife died in childbirth a year later, Dinu was left to work off the debt alone.

What was the rate of interest, I once asked him. How much did he still owe? Such complicated sums were beyond him. "Ram Singh keeps the accounts," he said, "and writes down any new loans." Yet he was clearly getting deeper into debt, because Ram Singh sometimes lent him money to buy the local liquor, brewed from mustard flowers.

"He is good to me," Dinu insisted. When the youngest of Ram Singh's three wives dished out the food, she gave him more than the others did. In winter, he could sit by their fire. It was almost like home.

And yet he keeps running away. In the mid-'70s the government announced that all bonded laborers would be freed and their debts cancelled. Dinu walked out, together with Kedu, Ram Singh's other bonded laborer. They worked for a while on a nearby road-building project. It had been started by the government to provide employment for newly freed bonded laborers. When funds ran out, Kedu returned to his family. But Dinu, with no one to go back to, had to sleep in the open. And all the time Ram Singh kept pestering him to repay his debt. "The loan was between you and me," he insisted. "The government has nothing to do with it."

Hungry and chilled, Dinu begged to be taken back into the farmer's household. Whereupon Ram Singh picked up a jug of water, took along a pinch of salt, and led him to the stone idol in the ravine outside the village. Dinu intoned after him: "You are my master. If I ever leave you, may the gods punish me. May my body dissolve like that salt dissolved in water. May I die."

Ram Singh gave him enough money for a three-day drinking bout. The village soon knew that Dinu was bonded again, but the government did not -- officials don't live in the village.

For a time Dinu felt as if he had come home, and so long as he worked hard, he was well treated. When he fell ill he was tended like a valuable domestic animal. But one occasion when, after a couple of weeks, he still refused to go to the fields, his food was stopped. "You're malingering," Ram Singh said, and beat the youngest wife who had stealthily given Dinu a bowl of rice.

Dinu dragged himself down the hill to the poorer section of the village, begging for food and shelter until he regained enough strength to hire himself out as a laborer. Again he had no roof over his head, and rarely found work for more than two days a week. Often his stomach was empty.

One day he was crossing the ravine on the way to the fields when Ram Singh jumped from behind a boulder and dragged him to the stone statue. "Pay up, or I'll call down the curse," he yelled. "You'll die."

Dinu was terrified. "Don't," he implored. "I'll come back." That night he had a good meal again, and plenty to drink, and slept in Ram Singh's loft.

The pattern of escape and return now repeats itself every year or two. Dinu had just gone through a particularly debilitating attack of dysentery, combined with malaria, when I offered to help him get away from Ram Singh. He came to see me a week later.

Who, he wanted to know, would make sure he had a home and work and a full belly? He could work for me, I answered. And what would happen to him, he asked, when I left the village? I knew a government official in town, I told him, whose job it was to ensure that bonded laborers were freed and remained free. "I couldn't afford to bribe him after you leave," Dinu said flatly. That wouldn't be necessary, I assured him.

"Of course it would," he said. "It always is."