THE WOMAN had been sent to the village by the government, but she did not act like an official. She humbly asked permission to address the village elders.
"I've come to help your children," she said. "Or to take them away from us," the mothers whispered, and hid their offspring.
The elders were suspicious too, but let her have a hut, the most dilapidated in the village. That was the way to get rid of an unwanted guest. Leela carried her own water from the distant well, and gathered wood for cooking. The village watched. At first, basic chores took all her time. But she was going to stay.
The children gradually came out of hiding. Leela baked sweets and delicacies, but only one or two succumbed to the temptation. The Black Witch, the villagers called her -- her skin was darker than theirs. "If the Black Witch catches you," the mothers warned, "she will turn you into a wolf." But daring children suffered no harm.
Leela addressed the village council again. The government had given her a small food allowance for the children, but only for those who came to her class. All boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 5 were welcome. Sometimes she treated them to a handful of rice and lentils or a little porridge, sometimes to peanuts or walnuts.
First just a few came. Then a dozen, then more. Every morning Leela washed them at the well -- something their mothers did perhaps once or twice a month. She combed their hair daily, not just for festivals. If a child's sleeve was torn, she sewed it on, rather than leave it to tear further. But what the mothers appreciated most was the time they gained to work in the fields without the children round their feet.
The day Leela was too ill to take the class, the village was thrown into confusion. Parents had come to expect their new freedom. The woman looked in on her, and brought her herbal remedies. Next day she was better.
Now Leela felt confident enough to say to one of the mothers, "Your boy is the dirtiest in the class. You should wash him more often."
When he arrived unwashed next day, she sent him home. He missed his porridge. The following morning his face was scrubbed and his wet hair smooth. Leela rewarded him with a smile and a sliver of soap. She told a girl with a torn frock to come back when it was mended. The mother promptly complied.
Leela no longer had to wash the children and mend their clothes -- not often, anyway. Their parents had come to depend on her to look after the children and were prepared to pay her price.
Now Leela could carry out the second stage of her plan.
She invited the women to an evening class, to teach them child care. She explained why cleanliness and diet were important. The villagers grew very few vegetables. "You should grow more," she insisted. They asked her why. She improvised: "They increase your blood supply." And flies were bad, she said, "because they fall in the food."
The men told their womenfolk to stay away from the class. If they spent their evenings with Leela, the husbands would have to carry water and dehusk rice for supper themselves, instead of lounging in the temple square. The women obeyed reluctantly. The evening classes petered out, but some of the younger wives kept sneaking back. They were curious about the outside world, and wanted to hear more.
The husbands grew angry. Leela was spoiling their wives. Some were even showing signs of rebellion. Where would it end? The village elders had been right to distrust her from the start. She must go.
They tried again to make life difficult for her, but she remained undaunted. The man who owned her hut decided he wanted it for his relatives. Another villager, one of the few men to appreciate her work, offered her his spare hut.
The children still came to the morning class, even when the food supply gave out, as it often did. She saw that as her major achievement. New habits were being formed. Now, when they were old enough, they were more likely to go to the proper school outside the village rather than graze the cattle. She was getting somewhere.
But the villagers continued to plot against her. One day her superiors received an anonymous letter. Soon she was summoned to town.
When the summons came, the village teacher knew she must start cooking the books. She would have to show more pupils in the school register than attended her class. Leela tried the new list on me, proudly, without a hint of underhandedness. I was impressed by the neat lettering, but if I could spot the deception, wouldn't the authorities?
Leela could guess what was in the letter the villagers had sent to town. They had often badgered her to hand over directly to each family in bulk the food she distributed daily to the children. But that was against the regulations.
The parents told me that Leela had not been passing on to the children all the food the government had given her. Some didn't mind. She sent her salary home, they said, and if she didn't help herself to school food, she would starve. Others suspected that much of the food never reached the village. Perhaps she sold it in town as soon as she collected it from the government store.
Leela claimed she had been maligned. She had once picked up a bag of rice on her monthly visit to town, and when she weighed it in the village it contained less than it should have. Another time she returned empty-handed -- the store-keeper had been away. Sometimes they gave her peanuts instead of sugar, she said, and potatoes in place of powdered milk.
Leela, now in her 20s, had come from a village in the foothills. She had gone to school until her late teens, and had then attended a three- month government course for kindergarten teachers. There were no jobs when she graduated. The new teachers were told to wait. A couple of years later she came to us -- the only one in her class, the villagers said, to be assigned to a post. They thought they knew why. She must have promised to share with officials the food allocated to village children. "That's where our rations go," they told me.
If that was true, I asked, why should they expect these officials to act on the letter they had sent to town? Joshi the rich farmer, one of the main instigators of the complaint, smiled cunningly. They had sent the letter to the judicial authorities, he explained, not to the social welfare department. The authorities would see to it that Leela was replaced. This time, he said, the village would insist on a teacher who confined her work to the children, and didn't stir up the mothers.
But the recipient passed the letter to the welfare department. Its officials readily accepted Leela's claim that the rations she collected from the government store were never sufficient for her class. She needn't have cooked the books. They didn't even bother to investigate the allegations against her. They were not concerned with the rights and wrongs of the cause. All they cared about was that the kindergarten she had set up in the village should continue to function. If she picked quarrels with the villagers and the school disintegrated, the officials would be held responsible by their superiors. They told her to find a way back into their favor.
Leela was furious. She had been taught that if she could persuade the mothers to keep the children clean and healthy, they would grow into sturdy and alert youngsters, a credit to the nation. That, she told me, was why she had started evening classes for the women. Yes, it was true that she had told them to spend less time on their husbands and more on their children, that the men were lazy good-for-nothings. The husbands could easily have done some of the chores that kept the women busy from dawn till late at night.
The men, she felt, had denounced her to the authorities because she was doing the job she had be,en sent to do. The officials, she complained bitterly, had taken their side, and told her to knuckle under.
She had returned from town with several sacks of rice and lentils, milk powder and walnuts, sugar and other delicacies. First the children had a feast. Then she implemented her new plan. She measured out carefully the amount of food she would henceforth give to parents in the village, an amount based on the number of children of kindergarten age in the family.
Leela no longer holds evening classes for women, but when the mothers come to collect the new family ration, she manages to plant the same subversive ideas in their heads. So her work will go on -- more slowly, less openly, but with the opposition lulled, perhaps more effectively.