THE DRUMMER'S SONS didn't want the village to choose a wife for them, and they thought they had found a way around it. But the village council, which was going to pay the bride-price they could not afford, was determined to get value for the money. If the brothers were to avoid being saddled with a wife they didn't want, they would have to move quickly.

The elder of the two, Taploo, had recently gone to a hamlet in the valley to play the drums at a funeral. He spent the night with the local drummer, was waited upon by his warmhearted, obliging daughter and was impressed by her industry. She never seemed to rest while he was about -- fetching water, cooking delicacies for the guest, washing his clothes. While she worked, she sang and cast sidelong glances at him.

Taploo's reminiscences, when he recounted them to me some years later, made it clear that he had fallen in love with her. But it was not her appearance that had attracted him. She was no beauty, he said with a laugh. He wanted to buy her because she was hardworking. She would make a good wife for him and his brother.

When the village council instructed Joshi to choose a bride for the drummers, it reminded the rich farmer that he must keep the price down. Taploo knew that he could get the drummer's daughter cheap -- he had already discussed the price with her father. While Joshi was visiting the hill villages to find what women of the drummer caste were available, Taploo secretly completed his negotiations with the girl's father and paid a deposit of 150 rupees (just under $20) on the agreed price of 1,500 rupees.

The village council, he reasoned, would hardly be able to resist so good a bargain, and would pay up. Any bride chosen by Joshi would be more expensive, because her parents would know that he was purchasing her on behalf of the village, and would set the price accordingly.

But Joshi took his duties seriously, inspected the drummer's daughter and came back with some questions. Did the village really want to import a bride who was so much darker than any of their own women? The villagers remained unmoved. They knew the color of her skin and her flat nose accounted in part for the lower bride-price. But Joshi had kept the best argument to the last. Did they really want to spend the Village's money of a bride whose sisters were barren?

If she produced no offspring, he reminded them, the village would again be without a drummer when the brothers died, and would have to go to the expense of buying a new one. He had found a woman of the drummer caste in the hills who wanted a divorce and was three months pregnant. She would cost a little more, but she was worth it. They would be buying two for the price of one.

The poorer villagers sided with Taploo. It was all very well for the Brahmins to fancy an expensive bride, they said, but the untouchables would have to borrow the money they must contribute. The Brahmins promised to lend it to them. They could work it off. Taploo was ordered to go with Joshi to meet the pregnant woman.

Taploo sat silent while Joshi haggled with Pashlo's husband. He wanted too much money, and they departed without leaving a depost. But she had taken to Taploo. Pashlo returned to her father, who wanted to get her off his hands, and was willing to take less. Joshi pressed his advantage. If she went back to her husband, he argued, she would have to live in a desolate hamlet high up in the hills, where food was scarce and water had to be carried a long way. But if they accepted his offer, she would live in a prosperous village which guaranteed the drummer's food supply in return for their services. She would be marrying two brothers, so there would always be someone to take care of her, if anything should happen to one of the husbands.

Pashlo's father sang her praises. Her skin was a very light shade of brown, her sharp features had spread her fame as a beauty far and wide, and she was with child -- he had obviously heard of Taploo's first choice. And surely they must agree that she was a hard worker, he added, because she had lived in a hamlet where the only way to survive was by work. He wanted 2,500 rupees, out of which he would repay the first husband the bride-price he had originally received, and keep the rest.

Joshi persuaded the village council to pay the higher bride-price. The more the drummers owed the village, the less able they would be to repay their debt. And without repaying it, they could not leave.

The two drummer brothers at first shared happily the wife bought for them by the village, but it was not long before they began to compete for her favors. Was Pashlo egging them on? That was what the villagers said. I ought to have known better than to believe village gossip.

When the younger brother Hira, ran away, they all said it was because he was Jealous. The community had refused to buy a second wife for the family, but another village promised to give him a wife for himself if he became its drummer.

I know that he had repeatedly threatened to leave and that Pashlo had tried hard to stop him. When her tears left him unmoved, she neglected the senior husband in favor of Hira, heaping scarce food on his plate or accompanying him to the fields while her work piled up at home. I thought this meant that she loved him more than Taploo, the elder brother, but she denies it. She left her first husband to marry the drummers, she recalls, because having two husbands gave her twice the security she had before. Hira's departure threatened to deprive her of it.

But in clinging to Hira she had undermined the basis of the polyandrous marriage: she favored him over Taploo, who in turn became Jealous and angry, and took it out on his younger brother. This increased family friction, and made Hira even more determined to leave.

Pashlo readily admits that she had put him up to demanding a second wife, but that was because she needed another woman to help her with the work. With two husbands and their father to look after, with two children and a third on the way, she couldn't manage on her own. She didn't know that it would end with his running away.

The old drummer also had an ulterior motive for wanting to be rid of Hira. His family was increasing in size, but the amount of grain the village doled out to them remained the same. The dugout in which they slept was becoming too crowded. They still had only two quilts to sleep under, no matter how many they were.

He told me once how happy he was to have a growing family, but now he was compelled to thin it out. He prodded Hira to leave, assuming that the village would not force him back. It was now more than a half a dozen years since the institution of bondage had been abolished and the drummers' debt to the village cancelled by the government decree. But the village does not give up its property as easily as that. The council sent a message to Hira promising to buy a wife if he returned. Hira, suspecting a trick, insisted that the bride-price should be paid first.

The next message said that if he did not return, he would be brought back by force. He lgnored it. According to one story, he was set upon on a dark night by men he did not recognize. They beat him until there was hardly any life left in him. When he recovered he slunk back to the village.

That's not true, say the villagers. He came back of his own free will. The community received him like a prodigal son, with smiles and gifts of food and clothes. Even his family no longer wanted to be rid of him. Pashlo gave him her love, and Taploo suppressed his jealousy.

But gradually the tensions reappeared. Family discord deepened. Taploo demanded his rights as the senior husband. Pashlo resented being the bone of contention. The old drummer complained that there wasn't enough food to go around.

Only the children continued to treat Hira with affection, but Taploo soon put an end to that. "Leave them alone, they are mine," he insisted. The toddler, unmindful of family tensions, ran into Hira's arms. Taploo snatched him away. The child cried. Hira turned away, hiding his own tears.

Every now and again he declared that he would leave the village for good, that no one could stop him, not even the council, because bondage had been abolished. Then the reaction would set it. "If I go," he would tell me, "they'll only bring me back."

Not if he went far enough, I told him. How could he go without cooking utensils of his own, he asked. He wouldn't even be able to heat up a handful of rice at the roadside -- if he ever managed to get away.

It doesn't make sense. He could get away if he wanted to. Perhaps he prefers the devil he knows. He talks big, but his spirit is broken. His father tried to run away, he says, but was made to come back. Now his own attempt to gain freedom has been foiled. "My son also will try," he says and picks up the infant, "and will fail."

He throws the boy up in the air and catches him with a happy smile, as any father might do, in London or New York, in Tokyo or even in Delhi.

Taploo allows him to play with the children now.