BORN IN POLAND in 1925, Victor Zorza was deported to Russia during World War II, escaped from Siberia, then went to England where he served in the Royal Air Force. After the war he became a journalist specializing in the analysis of Soviet and other communist governments, first for the Manchester Guardian and then for The Washington Post. His column, written from Washington, was syndicated internationally.
In the late 1970s his 25-year-old daughter died of cancer in an English hospice -- a place where highly trained doctors and nurses concentrate on easing the pain and giving genuine emotional support to both patient and family. Zorza stopped writing his column to work with his wife on a book to popularize hospices in America -- "A Way to Die," published by Knopf in 1980.
After completing the book, Zorza underwent heart surgery. When a physician told him that he had only a short time to live, he decided to do something he had wanted to do for many years -- settle in a distant corner of the world, and write a column that would help Western readers to understand how life is lived in one of the world's poorest societies. His work as an analyst of international affairs had convinced him that the misery and despair which envelops three-quarters of the globe's population in the developing countries present a greater threat to humanity than that posed by East-West conflict.
After several months of travel and stays in several Indian villages, Zorza settled on a village in the Himalayas. The village is several hours by foot from the nearest highway and a day's travel from the nearest town. Its population of more than 300 is divided between the high-caste Brahmins and Rajputs, and Harijans or Untouchables. Zorza rented a stone hut from a Brahmin farmer-priest, hired a cook and an interpreter and started learning all he could about the lives of the villagers. The simple but healthy life he leads seems to have restored his health, and the doctors have withdrawn their pessimistic prognosis.
Zorza's reports from his Himalayan village will appear in Outlook once a month. The village and people he writes about cannot be named, a condition Zorza accepted to help overcome the fear and suspicion that at first had caused the villagers to answer his questions evasively. Zorza explains:
"When I understood why they had lied to me, I learned the most important lesson of village life. The strangers who had appeared in the village in the past were often conquerors who came to pillage and to rape, or traders who came to cheat and to exploit, or officials who came to extort taxes or bribes. You don't tell the truth to a stranger, because he will only use it against you. I have heard of killings, blinding and maiming and imprisonment. Villagers can become the prey of Mafia-type gangs, corrupt officials, landowners -- all trying to hang on to power in the face of government attempts to reform the system. Local newspapers have reported that two dozen untouchables who had tried to stand up for their government-granted rights were massacred recently by high-caste thugs. In our village, too, a man has been murdered by hired killers.
"The villagers did not allow me to take photographs for a long time, but even when they relaxed the prohibition, they insisted that no names should be used. They fear that the truth might bring retribution. I don't know to what extent their concern is justified. But the names of the people who appear in these columns have been changed, and the village itself shall be nameless.
"Perhaps this is as it should be. The simple dramas of my village reflect, I believe, the sorrows and joys that all men share, the common humanity of us all."