THE RENT for my hut was 10 times what it should have been, the villagers told me. They had approached me one by one, to avoid being overheard. My landlord was one of the richest men in the village, and no one wanted to incur his wrath. But they all wanted to see him taken down a peg. I was their chosen instrument.
The landlord would't budge. If he gave way, everybody would laugh behind his back. But if I went on paying 12 pounds ($24) a month, I would be betraying their trust. They had waited until they saw me as part of the village, as a friend and neighbor, before they had confided in me.
My landlord's fellow Brahmins had hinted at the excessive rent, but it was the untouchables who wanted me to make an issue of it. The Brahmins were probably just envious. The untouchables offered me alternative accommodation in their own Harijan quarter on the lower slope.
Here was my chance to undo the mistake I had made when I went to live in the high- caste quarter and had thus identified myself with the rich Brahmins. I had since tried to repair my error by spending a good deal of my time with the Harijans. They had begun to trust me.
The Harijans offered me a choice of huts -- windowless, unbearably hot, stuffy. One had a leaky roof. In front of the other, swarms of flies rose from a pit filled with manure. When I came out, I almost tripped on a 10- year-old boy who was squatting on the path to relieve himself.
My own hut had three small, glassless windows in one wall. There was no through draft because the opposite wall was built into the hillside, but the heat of the day usually seeped out of it by midnight. It stayed deliciously cool until 8 or 9 in the morning. From the bottom part of the hut, built of stone, which houses my landlord's cattle, came grunts and smells and flies, but I hardly noticed them now. The upper floor had double wooden walls. The space between the planks provided some insulation from the heat, as well as built-in cupboards. Compared with the Harijan huts, this was luxury. Did I really want to give it up?
Even with the windows, the darkness crept into the hut quite early, but at least I could work on my notes for part of the day. In the Harijan hut this would be impossible. To work outside would mean being surrounded by curious onlookers all the time. Even inside my hut there was a constant stream of uninvited visitors who would just stand and stare, and then depart without a word -- though often with a smile of thanks for the spectacle I had provided. It used to exasperate me, but now it irritates me only when I am tired.
Why should I mind? I had come into their village uninvited, to observe them and to ask foolish questions. Surely they were quite as entitled to stare at me as I was to watch them at work, in their homes, in the fields. The way I ate, with a fork, was a source of constant wonderment for them. I marvelled, in turn, at the skill with which they wiped a plate clean with their fingers. My food -- rice and lentils -- puzzled them less, because it was much the same as theirs. But few villagers grew vegetables, and I brought these from town once or twice a month -- they didn't last long in the heat.
If the government was really going to bring in electricity soon, as some villagers believed, then I would have a refrigerator and a constant supply of vegetables, to say nothing of other delights. I could certainly move into a Harijan hut, work by the light of an electric bulb, stir up the stale air with a fan which would also keep the flies and the mosquitoes on the move.
But it was only a rumor. I resumed the bargaining with my landlord, and found that he had been maligned. He had charged me only five times the going rate, not 10. He came down a little, and I went up just a fraction. The negotiations went on for weeks, in great secrecy. No one must know of his concessions or he would lose face. In the end we agreed on half the previous figure.
I was ashamed to look my Harijan friends in the eyes, but they were exultant. I had got the better of the man whose family had exploited them for generations.
I had kept my side of the bargain with him and had not divulged the new figure. Nor, obviously, had he. How the Harijans came to know it is one of those mysteries in which the village abounds.