JUSTICE ARRIVED in the village in the person of a new patwari who henceforth would keep the land records straight, show no favor to high castes and see that untouchables got a square deal -- because, wonder of wonders, he was an untouchable himself.

The previous patwari, transferred to a remote hill district as a punishment for extorting bribes, had paid a last visit to the village to squeeze what he could out of it, but word of his banishment had preceded him. He left empty-handed.

The new patwari, the only untouchable in the whole district to attain this post, didn't stay for the night with one of the richer high castes, as his predecessor had always done. A high caste would never share his dwelling or his meals with an outcast -- which, for once, was just as well, for such hospitality was the beginning of favoritism and corruption.

The patwari, accompanied by seven of the policemen, made straight for the village drummer's hut in the temple square and ascertained that a landlord still had not returned the field he had seized from the drummer, and sent for the offender.

The Brahmins and Rajputs in the square exchanged worried glances. An outcast commanding a high caste? What was the world coming to? But the landlord, who had delayed returning the land in the hope that the previous patwari would protect him, refused to be intimidated.

Of course he would surrender the land -- if the court examined his claim to it and rejected it. Other high castes offered to give evidence in his favor, and even some of the untouchables told the new patwari that the matter was not as simple as it looked. He wasn't interested. He had his orders -- to bring the landlord to the district center. In handcuffs.

The patwari and the police escort took the prisoner the long way, over the hills, through villages which had not yet heard of his appointment. People stopped and stared. Many had known this captive as a rich farmer, trader, contractor, moneylender -- and now they saw him brought low, for there is nothing more humiliating in these hills than being led in handcuffs. No one would ask, "Was he guilty?" He was marked for life. And the new patwari, too, had made his mark.

The landlord had friends in the district center, men of his own Rajput caste, who managed to talk to him before he was taken to the official. His outlook was grim -- the story of how he had snatched the land from the drummer had gone round the world.

They blamed it all on the writer who was staying in the village -- he had published it in foreign newspapers and had, of course, given only the drummer's side. The high official in the city got hold of the article, had told the junior official in the district center that it reflected on the administration of the whole area. It gave India a bad name abroad. The landlord's friends said that the junior official sympathized with him, but wouldn't be able to help -- "orders from above," they said.

The junior official listened patiently as the landlord gave his side of the story. The land had been given to him many years ago, in the mid-'60s, by a man who left the village owing him some money. In the mid-'70s, the government allotted the field to the drummer under a program designed to help serfs lately freed from bondage. The government must have assumed that the land had been abandoned, but the landlord had satisfied the patwari that he had a valid claim to it.

Still, he wasn't going to stand on his rights, he told the official -- of course he would give it to the drummer, since that was what the government wanted.

He had been brought to the district center not because of the land, the official said, but because he had manhandled the drummer, and had threatened to beat him again. He would be sent to jail in the city -- "to avert a disturbance of the peace."

It was a week before he was released from the cell which he shared in the city with nearly 50 others, thieves, robbers, murderers. The judge said there was no case to answer. The sympathy which villagers offered him on return didn't wipe out his humiliation.

He had suffered a great injustice, he told me, sadly, without bitterness. But other high castes now answered my questions less readily, and some were avoiding me. The drummer took me to the new field, fingered the stalks of rice caressingly, spoke of the offering he would make to the gods after the harvest.

Had justice been done? Perhaps. But if so, it's rough justice.

The stranger's questions alarmed the villagers.

"Don't you know," he asked, "that it's against the law for one husband to have several wives?" He had stopped on his way to the village to chat to people working in the fields.

The villagers knew that polygyny was outlawed, and that their custom of sharing one wife between several husbands was regarded even more censoriously by people from the plains. But they were determined to retain both polygyny and polyandry.

The villagers grew even more apprehensive when they realized who the stranger's companions were. One was the son of the senior judge in the city. Had he come to make enquiries on behalf of the court? The other was Vijay, who had disappeared from the village after his defeat as the untouchables' candidate in the election for headman. Was he bringing these outsiders to have his revenge?

Vijay took them as far as the outskirts, directed them to the temple square and made for his own hut in the untouchables' quarters. He was quickly surrounded by anxious neighbors. The high castes had told them that he had returned to make trouble. But Vijay explained that he had only come to see how his family was doing. He did show the visitors the way, but that was pure coincidence.

The high castes didn't believe it. The stranger in the temple square was asking about the law camp held just outside the village a year ago, when officials came to deal with the grievances of poor people.

Vijay had played a prominent role at the law camp as the champion of the untouchables. The stranger had been told that 135 cases had been registered at the law camp for action, and he asked the villagers how many had been settled. Not one, they said.

The visitor went around the village asking men how many wives they had. The senior priest had three. Wives were expensive and only the richer villagers could afford to buy several. Poorer men had to be content with one wife among several brothers.

The drummer's two sons shared one wife. Kedu the cripple had started out by sharing his brother's wife, but the two men quarrelled, the family split and she went with the invalid. But even brothers rich enough to buy one or more wife each still shared them, as custom demanded. Joshi the Brahmin and his brother owned four wives between them.

The villagers had been told that officially only Moslems were allowed more than one wife, and that polyandry was a barbaric custom, but so far no one had tried to interfere.

Now this stranger was putting awkward questions to them -- and he was asking about me. He knew my name, had inquired whether I was in my hut, whether I was well -- and they promptly concluded that he was a friend I had invited to the village. They came running to my hut. I must protect them from my "friend," they said -- he had threatened to "arrest" them.

He introduced himself to me as a law professor from the United States. He had read my articles in The Washington Post, and was in India to do research on human rights.

No, he laughed good-naturedly, he hadn't threatened to arrest anybody. He had merely put to the villagers some hypothetical questions: suppose he had been a law officer and had told them that they could be imprisoned for violating the marriage laws -- what would they have done then? It was his way of testing their reactions, of doing research.

I asked him to explain to the villagers that he was not a law officer, and I told them that I had never set eyes on him, but the harm had been done.

When I first came to the village, they spoke to me freely about their marriage practices, and they knew I had discussed these in my columns. Now they regretted their candor. It had brought these strangers to the village, they thought, and might yet bring the law down on their heads.

They could see now how it all fitted together. Some Brahmins had feared from the start that my hobnobbing with the untouchables could lead to no good. They knew I had sympathized with Vijay's aspirations to become headman, and they suspected I had tried to help him to win the election.

The untouchables had settled down since Vijay's defeat -- but now he had returned with the judge's son and this "professor." They were sure the strangers would never have come if I hadn't been in the village.

Ought they to ask me to leave?

I was away from the village when the "police" came to ask about me. They were two intelligence officials from the provincial headquarters, men of awesome authority whose questions struck fear in the villagers' hearts. Whom did I usually talk to? What did I want to know? Where did I go?

Other visitors had preceded them. I had been naive to believe that I could keep my whereabouts unknown, and some of the intruders thought they were doing me a favor, responding to an implied invitation. On my trips to town I had asked if anyone knew how to harness a mountain stream to produce electricity, and a willing helper soon turned up in the village. The villagers were startled by his questions, and he was even more startled by my cool reception of him.

He departed deeply offended. On my next visit to town I learned that the generator -- which I had hoped might provide light -- had a sinister purpose. I was a foreign spy, and needed a power source for my transmitter. Why else would I want to be so secretive?

The New York Times correspondent came from Delhi to interview me. His article never appeared, but the visit provided added evidence of my foreign "intelligence" connections -- why else would a foreigner make a four-day trip and just stay for a few hours?

All this was far above the villagers' heads. What the village high castes were concerned about was that outsiders might give the untouchables ideas above their station. A high official from the city had promised them new housing, and a representative of a foreign aid society had come to look into the possibility of setting up an outcasts' cooperative.

A team from an agricultural university had asked questions about land tenure -- which could mean that the landless would be given their own fields. But where would these come from, if not from the high-caste landlords?

The patwari -- who kept the land records and usually gave the landlords the benefit of the doubt -- had been replaced by an untouchable who would favor the outcasts.

The Brahmins were disturbed, suspected I had something to do with all this and were beginning to wonder whether they really wanted me in the village. The untouchables were hopeful that I would stay.

The law professor with questions suggesting that their practice of polygyny and polyandry was illegal had upset both high castes and low castes. The intelligence officials' inquiries frightened everybody. Villagers were now remembering all the other strangers who had come because of me -- more visitors, said one old man, than in the whole of his life before my arrival.

They had asked me to stay, had given me their trust and hospitality and were not going to withdraw it now. But it was me they had invited, they often said, not all those others who had come poking their noses into the village's affairs, making fun of their customs.

I didn't want to leave. I had made friends -- the village drummer who always beat a special welcome when heespied me a long way down the mountain, on my way back from a hike; Kedu the cripple, one of the poorest, who had been given a buffalo and two bullocks by the government; even some of the Brahmins, who felt that my presencneve had given the village a new prestige.

But I had made mistakes. I had not managed to remain as detached as I had set out to be. My very presence had begun to change the community I was trying to observe, to bring tensions to it as well as, perhaps, some benefits. I didn't wait to be asked to leave, but departed before my welcome had worn out -- and have returned occasionally, to see how my friends were getting on, to seek new insights, to write some more pieces.

When the dust has settled, I might come back here to live -- or go to stay in one of the new villages I have been exploring lately. If I do go to another village I might even be able to avoid my old mistakes, and will hope to learn from them.

So, perhaps, might my readers -- those who have written suggesting that I stay put, and those who believe it is time for me to move on. I am grateful for their letters. They have made me feel that the experience I am sharing with them can teach us all something worth knowing--if only we are capable of learning.

Copyright (c) 1983, Victor Zorza.