THE FEAST in the untouchables' quarters was ostensibly in honor of a village god, but everybody knew that there was a hidden purpose to it. The Brahmins in the upper part of the village listened to the drunken cheering that came up from the outcasts' huts and wondered who had provided the money. The untouchables certainly couldn't have afforded so lavish a spread. And what were they going to do in return?

The cries of "Vijay for headman" explained the mystery: the outcasts' candidate had evidently found someone to finance his election campaign -- and to pay for the drinks. When the untouchables sobered up, they too began to wonder who was paying. They knew that only a Brahmin would have that kind of money. It therefore followed, as night follows the day, that Vijay had promised the Brahmins to keep the untouchables in their place if he became headman. The man who had posed as their champion had sold the pass.

Vijay met the accusation head on. He bought more illicit liquor, invited all the outcasts to share it with him -- and admitted outright that the money had come from Joshi the Brahmin. He had indeed promised Joshi that the untouchables would bend to the Brahmins' yoke. There was no other way, he said, to talk the Brahmins into accepting an outcast as headman.

Without the support of at least some Brahmins, Vijay explained, he would never win the post. But what he did when he got to the top was another matter. Had he ever betrayed their trust -- when he had helped to free them from bondage, to set up the cooperative, to get land for the landless?

In the meantime, Joshi worked on the Brahmins. He urged them to take the long view, to bear in mind that Indira Gandhi favored the untouchables. If Vijay became the first untouchable headman in their area, he would be sure to go a long way -- perhaps to the State Assembly at the next election. No local Brahmin could aspire to that. And had they ever heard of a politician who did not look after his native village?

But some of the most influential Brahmins, led by the senior priest, had remained unmoved. The untouchables had lately been evading the duties which symbolized their subjection. Some had refused to carry the dowry of a Brahmin bride to another village, and to walk to a distant hamlet to summon relatives to a Brahmin funeral.

The senior priest blamed Vijay for putting ideas into their heads and warned the other landlords against being taken in by Joshi's smooth talk. Joshi, he said, had betrayed his caste in exchange for promises by Vijay to support his applications for government contracts. But Vijay as headman would incite the untouchables against their betters, and they would refuse to work in the landlords' fields.

Joshi fought back, assuring the Brahmins that if the village nominated Vijay, the new headman would work for harmony between the castes. The nomination meeting in the temple square was attended by all the Brahmins, Rajputs and untouchables. Representatives came from the four neighboring villages which formed the election district. Vijay folded his hands, as if to pray, and humbly addressed the high castes.

"I ask for your support, because without it I cannot become anything. I have been reared on the leftovers of my high caste benefactors. I was like dust under their feet. But I am educated, I can read, and I know how to speak to officials for the good of the village.

"If I become headman, I will not favor one caste over another. I will not take sides. I will deal fairly with all, and make sure that old customs and oblilgations are obeyed." But where was the guarantee that he would do so?

Joshi held up a brass pot and Vijay put a pinch of salt in the water. "If I don't keep my words, may my body dissolve into nothing as this salt has dissolved." He paused, and more than a hundred people hung on his words, expectantly. "And may the bodies of my children dissolve in the same way."

A collective sigh of relief escaped the assembly. Vijay had sworn the most solemn of oaths, and they believed him. He walked through the crowd offering sweetmeats. Acceptance meant a promise to vote for him, and no one refused his gift. The four nearby communities would follow the village's lead, as they always had. The election would be uncontested, because no one would dare to challenge a candidate who had been nominated unanimously by the village meeting.

Vijay had reserved the last sweet for his fiercest opponent, the senior priest. He looked for him everywhere, but to no avail. The old Brahmin had disappeared.

The invitation to an outsider to stand for election as headman threw the village into turmoil. The unanimous will of the village meeting which had already offered the nomination to Vijay was being flouted by several Brahmins led by the senior priest. The post, they argued, had always been held by a high caste, and must not go to an untouchable.

Other Brahmins maintained that a man from their own village, even an untouchable, was to be preferred to Ram Singh, the senior priest's choice. Ram lived in a nearby hamlet and, in a dispute, would always take sides against them, favoring his own neighbors. And how could they go back on the solemn promise the whole community had given to Vijay? He had sworn on the salt that he would not favor untouchables over high castes, and the contract was sealed, they insisted, when they had accepted the sweetmeats Vijay had distributed at the meeting. But the senior priest argued that he was not bound by the promise, because he had left the gathering before the sweets were handed out. His own followers had stayed away from the meeting, and were entitled to challenge a decision taken in their absence. They would have kept quiet, he said, if Vijay had observed the terms of his undertaking. But he had gone round the villages stirring up the untouchables against the Brahmins, to make sure of the outcast vote. If he was doing that now, what would he be like as headman?

Some of Vijay's supporters among the Brahmins began to waver. The outcasts were already showing signs of rebellion. They were saying that after the election they would refuse to work in the Brahmins' fields unless they were paid the minimum rate set by the government (less than $1 a day), and that Vijay would support them. "I told you so," the senior priest reminded the landlords.

Ram Singh held forth in the temple square every evening about how he would keep the untouchables in their place. Most Brahmins had now come round to supporting him, and all the Rajputs of his own caste would vote for him without question. The two castes, the priests and the former warriors, now farmers all, had joined forces to protect themselves against their erstwhile serfs. Would the untouchables, who were in the majority, hold firm in face of the new onslaught?

Even Vijay confessed his doubts to me as he begged for help. The government officials who had exhorted him for years to stand up for the untouchables' rights were now refusing to move a finger. Of course they wanted him to win, they had told him, but in an election they must maintain strict neutrality, or they would be accused of interference. He could not understand that, and he was exasperated by my own attempts to explain that I, too, as an outsider, must remain detached from the struggle.

Hadn't I, he asked, repeatedly promised the untouchables my support? No, I had done nothing of the kind. Why, then, had I spent so much more of my time with the outcasts than with the high castes? My questions had given them to understand that my sympathies lay with them, but now that the real test had come, he said, I was deserting them just like the officials had.

I was caught, and I didn't know how to escape. Should I follow my natural inclinations? Or would the Brahmins, already suspicious, become hostile and turn me out of the village, undoing a year's work? I was here to observe and to report. What good would I do by interfering? Anyway, what could I do? I could tell officials in the city, Vijay said, that the high castes were trying to intimidate the untouchables.

The high castes were saying that untouchables would not be allowed to dig irrigation ditches to their fields. Those who already had ditches could not be allowed to draw water from the main channels. Landless untouchables would be given no work. Those who had cattle would not be permitted to graze their animals on the commons controlled -- illegally -- by the high castes. Outcasts would not be allowed to cross the high castes' fields, and would have to make long and steep detours, carrying heavy burdens, to reach their own land.

Some untouchables had already been bullied into promising to vote for Ram Singh. If I didn't ask officials to intervene, Vijay said, his own majority would melt away. If I did, said I, my stay in the village might come to an abrupt end. Or could I get away with it?

It looked as if the villagers might get back the bride money the patwari had extorted from them. This local representative of government authority, the most powerful creature on earth -- and the most corrupt -- was now fussing obsequiously around the high official whom he had escorted to the village. They had never dared to denounce the patwari, but now they saw him cringe, and it gave them courage.

He had taken a bribe from Vijay after arresting him on a trumped-up charge in order to demonstrate Vijay's impotence. If Vijay could recover the money, the patwari's position would be undermined and he would stop interfering in the election. But what if the high official believed the Patwari rather than him? I assured Vijay that I would back his story.

He grew bolder, and said he would also tell the official how a rich landlord had snatched the village drummer's field -- if I bore out his account. The landlord was the brother of Ram Singh, Vijay's high caste rival in the election. If the land was restored to the drummer, Ram Singh would lose face. That would be worth quite a few votes.

The official arrived in the temple square, summoned the landlords, and spoke sternly to them. He explained the laws devised to protect the underprivileged and threatened to bring to book anyone who violated them. The patwari nodded eagerly.

The official told the villagers about the fund the government had set up to improve the outcasts' housing. Six new huts would be built in our village. Vijay beamed. He would be asked to recommend the most deserving untouchables -- and would thus recapture some of the supporters who had lately deserted him. The official also announced that more land would be distributed to the outcasts.

That meant more votes for Vijay -- but only if the untouchables could be sure that he was in a position to protect them from intimidation. He must therefore demonstrate that both Ram Singh, his rival, and the patwari, had feet of clay. But now that the time had come to act, he grew timid. His supporters pushed him to the front. Vijay stepped forward reluctantly. He thanked the official for the solicitude the government was showing for the poor, asked him to convey their gratitude to Mrs. Gandhi -- and then stepped back. He has said nothing about the patwari's bribe or the drummer's land.

How, he asked me later, could he have spoken against the patwari to his face? The patwari was sure to return after a while, beat him, humiliate him, arrest him again. It was up to me to act, he said. If I told the official what I knew, would he corroborate it? Vijay hemmed and hawed, but in the end agreed.

I spoke to the official in English, and he promptly sent the patwari away so that Vijay would not be afraid to speak. But Vijay's hesitant answers to theeofficial's questions, confused and self-contradictory, did more to exonerate the patwari than to accuse him. The official was not surprised, and assured me that he accepted my version of events. It was rarely possdoinible to obtain confirmation from cowed villagers, he said -- but without evidence he could not proceed formally against the patwari.

He could of course tell the patwari informally that he knew exactly what had happened, the official said. He could instruct him to repay the bribe and even inflict some small punishment on him. But there were a hundred ways in which the patwari could get his own back, and with the election approaching, he would do his utmost to ensure Vijay's defeat. It would be better to make no formal charges, and to transfer the patwari to some remote district after the election. In the meantime he would warn the patwari against interfering in the election. If I insisted on lodging a formal complaint, he would of course act on it, but if my purpose was to help the untouchables, he would advise against it. I agreed.

But he found another way to help Vijay. He assembled the villagers again, asked the drummer about the land that had been snatched from him, and confirmed his claim to it. The man who had dispossessed him would be punished with the full severity of the law, he said, and so would any members of his family who aided him.

He paused for effect, looked squarely at Ram Singh, the landlord's brother, and repeated his warning. He would send a platoon of police to the village to see that there was no last-minute bullying on election day.

The policemen sent from town to prevent fights on election day were on edge, because in another village a candidate for headman had been killed in a quarrel. They watched uneasily as tension rose between the two groups outside the polling station.

The untouchables suspected they were being cheated of victory. The police had told Vijay to keep his followers in check, and he had done so, but now he was beginning to wonder. Several of his supporters had not been allowed to vote. Someone had made sure, he told me, that their names would not appear on the voters' roll. Who?

Only one man was in a position to do that, Vijay said. The patwari, who kept the land records, was also responsible for the election register. He had hinted that those who voted for Vijay need not expect him to take their side in quarrels over land ownership. The untouchables were vulnerable. The ownership of fields allocated to them under the land reform was often disputed. Vijay could afford to lose some votes, because the untouchables in the five villages outnumbered the outcasts. But not too many.

He appealed to the senior policeman to restore his supporters' names to the register. The officer went into a huddle with the patwari and with Vijay's rival, Ram Singh -- and blandly informed the untouchables that it was all their own fault. The voters list had been posted for some time in a public place, as required by law. They had been given every opportunity to ensure that their names were on it. Of course, he said, mistakes could happen, and this no doubt accounted for the missing names. But it was too late to do anything about it.

"How could I have checked the list," a man shouted. "I cannot read." Vijay remonstrated with the police officer. Hadn't he been sent to the village to make sure that the untouchables were not cheated? If it was a mistake, how did it happen that only Harijan names were missing? The untouchables yelled their approval. The high castes threw insults back at them. The two groups moved forward, menacing each other, but were kept apart by half a dozen policemen.

By the end of the day, 14 untouchables had been turned away from the polling station -- but so had a couple of high castes. This proved, the Brahmins said, that they too had suffered from mistakes made in compiling the list. No one had deliberately discriminated against the untouchables. But Vijay had his own explanation. The two high caste names had been omitted on purpose, he said -- to shield the perpetrators of the deception.

The ballot box was carried for the count to the district center under police guard. Vijay and Ram Singh, each with a gssdoinroup of supporters, followed close behind to make sure that no one would bribe the policemen to slip in false ballot papers. Dozens of other such parties were converging from the hills on the district center. In half of the 50 so constitutencies the candidates -- all high caste -- had been returned unopposed. In the other half, high caste candidates for headman had been challenged by untouchables.

Now they all stood in front of the government office in the district center, waiting for the returning officer to declare the results. As he read them out, the cheers came only from the high caste groups. The returning officer called out the name of our village. Vijay bent forward, tensely. Ram Singh -- 177 votes, the returning officer intoned. Vijay -- 100 votes. He had lost.

So had all the other untouchable challengers. But this was the first time any untouchable had stood for election in this area.

Ram Singh approached Vijay with hand outstretched. He wanted to be friends now, and invited Vijay and his whole party to join him in the teashop. But Vijay put his hand behind his back, and turned away without a word.

Word of Ram Singh's victory reached the village before his return. Untouchables as well as high castes came out to meet him and accompanied him to the temple to give thanks to the gods.

Vijay didn't come back. Ram Singh said he had been humiliated and dared not show his face in the village. Vijay's supporters said he had gone to the city to complain that he had been robbed of victory, and to demand a new election.

Copyright (c) 1983, Victor Zorza