India: A Million Mutinies Now, By VS Naipaul

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The Independent Culture

VS Naipaul first visited India, home of his ancestors, in 1962. Twenty-six years later he returned, and this is a long, detailed, thoughtful account of the changes he found, first published in 1990 and now reprinted for the 35th time.

Naipaul's writing is crisp, masculine, authoritative and highly visual. One is sometimes reminded of the George Orwell of "Shooting an Elephant" or "A Hanging". But Naipaul doesn't go in for Orwell's engagement and indignation. He merely records. He interviews a former terrorist responsible for at least 10 murders, and listens without offering judgement. Most of the book is told in the words of the Indians he meets: pundits, politicians, Brahmins, Dravidians, devout Hindus and Muslims, people of all castes and classes. It's really a huge slice of oral history.

There are times when the monologues seem rambling and unfocused, and the book could have been edited without losing its flavour. When Naipaul offers comments of his own, they are illuminating, such as his notion that the caste system (despite iniquities) functioned as a way of organising a complex society and preventing chaos, like the Elizabethan idea of degree.