The Village Voice

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 how to get rid of an unwanted guest. Leela carried her own water from the distant well, and gathered wood for the cooking. The village watched. At first, making her hut habitable and doing 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 three and five 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 women looked in on her, and brought her milk and 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 English 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.

The men told their women-folk to stay away from the class. If they spent their evenings with Leela, the husbands would have to carry water and de-husk the 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 if 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.