V.S. NAIPAUL has the soft, warm, companionable, precise voice of Charles Kuralt and the wide, steady, slightly melancholy gaze of an iguana. As a travel companion to India, one couldn't ask for more. Born in 1932 in Trinidad, West Indies, Naipaul fulfilled the frustrated dreams of his Indian father and became a writer. ``India: a Million Mutinies Now'' is his 20th book and his third book about the country. His steady, full, clear stream of prose eddies around despair, nostalgia, anger, wonder, and a kind of pride. The million mutinies of the subtitle echo the great mutiny of May 1857, when India's several peoples - the Brahmans, the Rajputs, the Afghans, the Moguls - revolted against the corrupt Bri tish-controlled East India Company and gave Her Majesty the opportunity to make India a crown colony.
Naipaul visits - often with a sense of dej`a vu because he'd met many of them in earlier trips - Brahmans and Untouchables, religious pilgrims and scientists, old boxwallahs (Indians who worked for colonial governments) and new entrepreneurs, women's magazine editors and Sikh terrorists, professional performers of Hindu rites and union organizers, criminals and college professors, strict Muslims and Maoists. He visits Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Lucknow, Delhi, the Punj ab, and Kashmir. Many of the interviews have the depth and detail of a novella.
The million mutinies also refer to the seething opportunities afforded by the world's largest democracy. Each time Naipaul interviews someone, he's eager to know why they do what they do and just how they bear the burden of the past.
Refusing to simplify, Naipaul yet seeks out causes. His compact sentence style allows him to coordinate multiple causes so that he often has three ``because'' clauses in one sentence. He's also concerned about causes in the ideological sense, wanting to touch the private zone of humanity in each interview if he can.
Relevant historical background is tucked into each interview. Sometimes he pauses to take in the view. ``Through all the twists and turns of history,'' he writes, ``through all the imperial venturings in this part of the world, which that Portuguese arrival in India portended, and finally through the unlikely British presence in India, a Hindu India had grown again, more complete and unified than any India in the past.''
Despite the violence and factionalism of India today, Naipaul takes heart in what he sees. Introducing the chapter on the Sikhs (his attempt to understand, among other things, how it happened that Indira Gandhi should be killed by her own Sikh bodyguards), he says, ``To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively.''
He observes the tensions between ritual and choice in the search for identity, and he celebrates whenever his interviewee presents a ``story of a rise and of opportunity.'' Opportunity implies rebellion: rebellion against Brahman orthodoxy, for example, which particular rebellion stretches from Buddha up to the first guru of the Sikhs, whose rebellion was prompted by the horrors of the Muslim invasions. Guru Nanak tried to blend the faiths of Hindu and Muslim. One hundred years later, the Moguls began to persecute the Sikhs. Modern radical Sikhs think of this, to Naipaul's despair, as they plan a hit.
``To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively'' but not without pain. Of another kind of killer, the communist Naxalite, Naipaul writes: ``Stage by abstract stage, from a raw, humiliated concern with the poor and India, to cultural and economic suicide, new compulsions and violations, and a cause far from the peasant's hunger.'' That passionate sentence doesn't need a verb: The growth of despair is palpable in the syntax, in the fateful progress - or is it regress - of the emotions.
``Bombay is a crowd,'' is how the book opens: Through its long, densely observed descriptions, one becomes used to crowds, and to dirt, pollution, hunger, squalor, violence. One even sees why living in a ``chawl'' - a 10-foot hole in the slum inhabited by at least 10 people - may be preferable to living in a big, empty apartment: ``There is no life in an apartment.'' As the details accumulate, the reader becomes more deeply involved in a growing appreciation for a life lived under extreme ci rcumstances.
Reading Naipaul, one becomes as optimistic about mankind as the author is about India. What he treasures most about the new India is its ``intellectual liveliness'': ``a free press, a constitution, a concern for law and institutions, ideas of morality, good behaviour and intellectual responsibility quite separate from the requirements of religion.''
Naipaul's thought is inherently complex and passionate: His prose style, famous for its simplicity, stateliness, and profound irony, rides on the brim of tears. But Naipaul is clearly holding up the mirror of his own rise as an individual on the world stage: The book could almost be called ``A Million Mirrors Now.'' The tears are those of insight, historical awareness, nostalgia, pride, compassion, hope.
Travel writing, history, novel, lyric - Naipaul's book partakes of the excellence of every category and fulfills itself in one of the oldest and rarest forms - prophecy. It bears witness, in unforgettable language, to the best of hopes in the worst of times.