The two husbands were squabbling over the wife they shared, and their argument could be heard in all the neighboring huts. Few people paid any attention. The quarrel had been going on for months, ever since Kedu broke his leg and refused to go to the hospital.

His brother Delebu had become increasingly impatient with the cripple. He grumbled that he would now have to work for two, frequently lost his temper and knocked Kedu about. Sanki seemed to serve both husbands equally, as the village code demands. But she looked after the invalid with all the tenderness of a loving nurse, while doing no more than her duty by Delebu. The village took Delebu's side, blaming the woman, as it usually does in these situations.

Yet Sanki was doing no more than giving practical expression to one of the principles on which wife-sharing is based. The villagers had told me that men working in these rugged hills were often incapacitated by illness or injury. In a shared marriage, the wife would look after a sick husband while his brother saw to the family's food supply.

But Delebu had never got on well with Kedu. Now he took advantage of Kedu's injury to show him who was boss. He ordered Sanki to seek work in the Brahmins' fields: She must make up for Kedu's "idleness." When she dragged her feet, he beat her. The villagers nodded approvingly.

"Now I have to work for the two of you," he groused. "I'd be better off on my own." Kedu and Sanki took him at his word and moved out. The village was astounded by their effrontery.

Many years ago, when the government distributed land to laborers freed from bondage, Kedu was given a plot just outside the village. He had never worked it, because it was too steep and rocky. Now that his leg was better, he cleared a small patch for a vegetable garden, and began to terrace the hill. Later he might be able to grow rice and grain.

He built a shack at the edge of the field -- a flimsy affair of branches and leaves, but adequate for the summer. He reckoned that by the time the rains came, the pain in his leg would would be gone altogether, Delebu's anger would subside and they could move back into the family hut.

But Kedu's leg continued to give him trouble. On good days, he could dig up the larger stones and carry them to the edge of the garden. He was clearing the field, and at the same time building a wall to protect the garden from cattle. When the pain was bad, sometimes for several days at a stretch, he could shift only the smaller rocks.

Now Sanki was able to give all her attention to him, and she tried one by one the remedies suggested by a local witchdoctor. She spent her days tramping the hills in search of rare herbs, returning at dusk to brew them all night on the open fire outside their shack. She boiled the leaves of the shyali tree, rubbed salt into them and fashioned them into a bandage. The shack was too far from the village to attract idle visitors. They were left alone, and seemed happy.

Sometimes Delebu came by with a few scraps of food for the children -- Sanki had taken all five with her -- and they had a feast. But for Delebu this was an opportunity to vent his bitterness. His reproaches could not but remind them of the years of bullying in the family hut. Sooner or later they would have to go back. Kedu, still an invalid, would not be able to protect Sanki, or himself, from Delebu's anger.

When the witchdoctor's cures failed to work, Kedu walked three days to consult a Brahmin hermit from the plains, renowned for his wisdom. Like most men from the plains, he regarded polyandry as a backward custom. He examined Kedu's leg, listened to his story, and asked searching questions about his family circumstances. Then he prayed and consulted the gods.

The hermit informed Kedu that he had broken his leg because his brother had cast a spell on him. He must part from Delebu for good, or be tormented by evil spirits for the rest of his life.

The Brahmin had shrewedly divined that, regardless of village opinion, both husbands would benefit from a complete separation. In the long negotiations that ensued, the brothers agreed that Kedu would keep the wife and children, while Delebu would retain the family hut.

The couple were to live in a stone hut that Kedu would build where the shack stood. If Kedu had not broken his leg, he and Sanki would have had to spend the rest of their lives in the family dwelling, being harried by Delebu. It is an ill wind that blows no one any good.

Kedu began collecting stones for a hut of his own.

It need cost nothing to build a splendid family residence in these hills. You hump the stones on your back, cement them together with clay, use slate from the hillside for the roof and move in. One man could do it in a year.

But Kedu needed 500 rupees (about $50) for materials and labor if he was to finish the hut before the winter. "If we don't get a loan," he said, "we'll freeze to death." The village shopkeeper, to whom he already owed 500 rupees, remained unmoved. He approached a high-caste farmer, offering to pay him back by working in his fields. While the Brahmin considered his proposition, Kedu quarried his own field for the stones that would form the walls of the hut.

Most of the villagers were content to use the crumbly local clay, but Kedu mobilized the family for a prospecting trip into the hills. The clay had to be gluey and heavy. When mixed with dung, he said, it would set as hard as cement. He would build to last.

They wasted no time during the expedition. Kedu gathered firewood. Sanki cut grass for the cattle. For the children, this was an adventure. They kept their eyes peeled for the saplings of rare trees. They would replant them in the new garden, and each child would look after his own.

It was like a treasure hunt. We found the clay in the bank of a stream that had recently changed course. The deep ravine rang with the happy cries of the children who had made the discovery. The reward was a pancake made of wheat flour -- a rare treat. The children drank the clear, cool water from the stream and played hide-and-seek. The grownups rested in the shade, waiting for the hot sun to go down.

Next day Kedu saw the farmer-moneylender. Why, the Brahmin asked, did he insist on building his dwelling so far outside the village? If he lived on the lower slopes with the other untouchables, just below the Brahmin huts, he could always be quickly summoned for work. That way the farmer would get his money back more easily. He would give Kedu a loan only if he stayed in the village.

The untouchables have been at the Brahmins' beck and call for centuries. If they dispersed their dwellings outside the village, the source of the Brahmins' labor would dry up. Kedu's departure might set a precedent. It must be prevented.

Kedu had no alternative. There was no free plot in the Harijan settlement. And he had quarreled with his brother so bitterly that neither of them would consider living together again. But his brother, whose credit was better, got a loan and gave the money to Kedu. He owed it to him for his share of the family house. Kedu bought timber and hired a carpenter and a mason.

He got no help from his fellow untouchables. They resented his withdrawal from the Harijan community and thought him standoffish. The tight cluster of Harijan huts left no room for privacy, and anyone who sought it was suspect. Each family knew its neighbors' problems and took sides in any quarrel. Kedu's decision to break up the joint marriage with his brother, and to take Sanki away from him, found few supporters.

Kedu laid the stones himself, slapping down on each layer the clay which Sanki had mixed with dung. He economized by using the side of the hill as one wall. He left the corners for the mason, who made sure that the joints would hold fast. The mason also laid the top layer of stones. They had to be level, so that the roof would fit snugly and not let the rain in. The carpenter fixed the beam and the roof supports, and made the door.

The rain drained from the hillside into a streamlet a few inches wide which passed through Kedu's field. For most of the year it was dry. The hut was built on top of it, with a hole in the floor and a gutter to the door. Now they had running water and internal drainage all in one, though only after it rained. But at least at those times they wouldn't have to carry water from the well. The three cows who shared the one-room hut could drink all they wanted.

There wasn't much to carry on moving day: a couple of quilts, a few pots and pans, a tin barrel which once contained tar for road- building and was now used to store grain -- when they had any. Kedu himself carried the wooden box which contained his most precious possessions -- pictures of deities, his land-grant certificate.

It was a happy occasion. The children's tree saplings had come up well. The deodar, which takes several human generations to mature, would one day provide timber for a new hut. The leaves of the bam would be used for cattle-feed. The bark of the vinal would be made into ropes, and its branches would be used as torches. The apricot and walnut, the pomegranate and guava, would yield fruit.

It was a time for congratulations. "Your children and grandchildren will be grateful for your foresight," I told Kedu, "and you will all be prosperous."

"I don't want to be prosperous," Kedu said. "I just want to know where our next meal is coming from." I wondered whether he really meant it. I was soon to find out.

Sanki stood on the hillside cursing, holding her hands up to heaven to call down divine wrath on the wreckers. The goatherds, some not yet in their teens, watched her from the path above, laughing. Her imprecations had a monotonous, resigned tone. She knew the damage could not be undone.

"You have destroyed my children's food," she wailed. "You've taken away our livelihood." Where, she implored the gods, would their next meal come from? Her plaintive sing-song rose to a shrill pitch, and then, with no warning, she shattered the harsh cadence with a blood-curdling scream. The sneers froze on the faces of her tormentors. She had laid a terrible curse on them. They fled down the hill, chasing the goats that had ravaged her vegetable patch.

"You did it on purpose," she shouted after them. They had let the goats into the garden while she was out fetching water, and had then waited to observe her distress.

They had seen Kedu leave at dawn. He would be away for at least a day. In his absence, they could taunt Sanki with impunity. The goatherds could take it out on her because the village believed she was a bad woman. But it was only a prank. They probably did not intend the devastation they had wrought.

When Kedu and Sanki had said again and again that they didn't know where their next meal was coming from, I took it to be a mere figure of speech. I knew they were poor, but it was partly Kedu's fault. If he had gone to the hospital to have his broken leg reset, as I had suggested, he could now have been growing a good deal of the food he needed. But his painful limp made it difficult to reach the distant field he used to work before his accident.

Kedu's attempt to hack a new field out of the rocky hillside near the village, to save himself the arduous walk, was proving harder than he had expected. It would be long before he could plant the rice and sow the grain that made up the villagers' staple diet.

Still, the ground he had cleared for a small garden was unusually fertile. It was yielding enough vegetables to keep them from starvation. They could manage on one meal a day. But to miss a meal would not bring just the ordinary pangs of hunger; it would also deprive an already underfed body of the sustenance it needed to function.

Kedu always planned ahead to make sure of the next meal. Before he had left layethat morning, he had made provision for the family's fare. The village shopkeeper, who didn't grow his own food, sometimes accepted garden produce im exchange for rice or flour. Kedu had promised him that Sanki would bring along some vegetables. There would not be enough to trade them for rice, but the shopkeeper would give her some mandua, the cheap, coarse grain which grows more easily in the hills. When made into pancakes with water, it swells up in the stomach and gives a feeling of fullness, even though it doesn't provide much nourishment. At least the children would not miss their meal in his absence.

But now the goats had trampled the tomatoes, pulled up the spring onions and devoured every bit of green that showed above the ground. Some vegetables would grow again, but the produce Sanki had been going to exchange for mandua was gone. But surely there must be some food in the hut, kept for just this kind of emergency? I knew they had three cows, but these provided little milk. They were kept mainly as a source of manure.

Her children were playing listlessly in the shade of a tree. Would they again go hungry? They kept glancing furtively at their mother, waiting for her fury to subside, as if not wanting her to know that they had seen her distress.

She sank to the ground, exhausted, but this was no time to rest. She would look for work in the Brahmins' fields, and bring back a handful or two of mandua.

Sanki walked from hut to hut, but the richer farmers had no need of her labor. They too thought she was a bad woman. The village would not forgive Sanki for what it thought was her scheming to separate the two brothers who had shared her as a wife. They were determined to punish her as an example to others. Her children went without food that day.

Sanki really didn't know where their next meal was coming from. It hadn't been a mere figure of speech.