INDIA A Million Mutinies Now By V.S. Naipaul Viking. 521 pp. $24.95

V.S. NAIPAUL has always been a scourge on the subject of the subcontinent. In 1962, as a young writer of 30, he left the comforts of London to have a first look at India, the nation of his ancestors and the source, or so he thought, of much of his identity. His year-long journey produced An Area of Darkness, a book of travel writing that remains one of the harshest indictments of India by an outsider, and in many way reveals more about him than it does about his ancestral land.

Far from finding the sense of community and belonging he had expected, Naipaul was overcome during his travels by a sense of homelessness and a newcomer's shock and revulsion. At the end of his journey, he wrote that "I had seen Indian villages: the narrow, broken lanes with green slime in the gutters, the choked back-to-back mud houses, the jumble of filth and food and animals and people, the baby in the dust, swollen bellied, black with flies . . . I had seen the starved child defecating at the roadside while the mangy dog waited to eat the excrement . . . Fear was what I felt . . . Contempt was what I had to fight against."

In 1977 Naipaul reprised this lament in a collection of essays entitled India: A Wounded Civilization. A decade and a half later, however, he retraced his old journey and produced India: A Million Mutinies Now, a book as full of optimism and sympathy as his earlier works were of disappointment and venom. Warm, human, rich with a cacophony of Indian voices, India: A Million Mutinies Now is about the passions and tragedies of a nation caught between the rush of modernity and the power of tradition. Unlike most other people who see doom in India's constant struggle to hold itself together, Naipaul looks at India's depressing caste, religious and regional conflicts and, over the long term, sees hope. Whether Naipaul is right or wrong -- and it is hard to think he is right as bloody separatist movements rage in Kashmir, the Punjab and Assam, and religious violence flares across the northern plains -- the fact remains: This is an indispensable book for understanding India at the end of the 20th century.

Since independence from the British in 1947, Naipaul writes, the "idea of freedom has gone everywhere in India." But that freedom has not come as a release, but as a disturbance, as "rage and revolt." India, he writes, is a country of "a million little mutinies . . . supported by twenty kinds of group excess, sectarian excess, religious excess, regional excess . . . But there was in India now what didn't exist 200 years before: a central will, a central intellect, a national idea. The Indian Union was greater than the sum of its parts; and many of these movements of excess strengthened the Indian state, defining it as the source of law and civility and reasonableness."

Everywhere he goes, Naipaul remarks upon the astounding changes in India since 1962. The southern city of Bangalore is now the home of the Indian space program. The Untouchables, or Dalits, have organized into a group, named after the Black Panthers, called the Dalit Panthers. The clubby, unproductive life of the "boxwallahs," the Indian executives who worked for the old British firms in Calcutta, has given way to the bottom-line, competitive culture of the new Indian businessman. "Indian business will give you certain facilities and very expensive life-styles -- provided you deliver the goods," a former boxwallah, Chidananda Das Gupta, tells Naipaul. "There are no sinecures left in Indian business."

Undeniably, India has changed in three decades, but so, too, has Naipaul. Now almost 60, he has become more intellectually generous and less judgmental than the angry young man of 30. Certainly he is a better listener. Perhaps, after living in London for 40 years, the Trinidad-born Indian has come to terms with both his adopted home and his roots. Whatever the cause, Naipaul himself acknowledges his change. In Madras, when a Brahmin seer he had met 30 years before tells him that he looks troubled, Naipaul responds, "I was more troubled in 1962. But I was younger." On the 1962 trip, he writes, he looked grudgingly at British Indian architecture and Edwin Lutyens's imperial buildings in New Delhi, finding the scale too grand for the poverty of India. But on this trip, confronted with 30 years of concrete, ugly, suffocating and "modern" Indian construction, Naipaul concludes that the British wisely built for the climate and so erected the best secular architecture in India. "The years race on; new ways of feeling and looking can come to one," he writes.

Naipaul's journey begins in Bombay, where he interviews slum dwellers, gangsters, a stockbroker and leaders of the Shiv Sena, the fundamentalist Hindu political movement. Each tells his story, the story of an individual transformation or mutiny, of another piece of independent India. Naipaul heads south toward Bangalore, where we meet two scientists, then moves on to Madras to interview once-powerful Brahmins, persons of the highest caste, who now feel on the defensive against such forces as the DMK, the south Indian political party rooted in the anti-Brahmin movement. Naipaul talks to one of the leaders of that movement, K. Veeramani, and at the end concludes: "I had never heard of Mr. Veeramani. But for 40 years Mr. Veeramani had been at the centre of an immense local revolution, which, with all the economic and intellectual growth that had come to independent India, had taken on the characteristics of a little war." THROUGHOUT his journey, Naipaul struggles to understand the causes of so much of the seemingly inexplicable violence of India. In Calcutta, he talks to a college professor who was once a member of the Naxalites, the Maoist-inspired peasant guerillas who murdered landlords and police across the state of West Bengal in the '60s and '70s; referring to the two great epics of Hindu literature, the former Naxalite tells Naipaul that "you must understand that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata rule the everyday religious code of the Hindus, just as the Koran does for the Muslims, and these are books which extol killing for a greater purpose. I should think that, like any other Indian, I had no sense of ethical outrage in advocating killing for a cause."

In the Punjab, where Naipaul visits a farmhouse 48 hours after Sikh terrorists have killed six members of a family, he tries to answer the question that has confounded so many others: why the Sikhs, who are among the most prosperous people in India, are so tragically and violently disaffected. Naipaul argues that while Hindu India has been blessed in the past 150 years with "a remarkable series of leaders and teachers and wise men" that led, in the late 20th century, to the "intellectual liveliness" of "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," the Sikhs, in contrast, had been intellectually stalled in the 18th century when their last guru, Gobind Singh, declared the line of gurus over, effectively petrifying the religion. "Such a religion couldn't be reformed; reform would destroy it," Naipaul writes, speculating that "it was as if there was some intellectual or emotional flaw in the {Sikh} community, as if in their fast, unbroken rise over the last century there had developed a lack of balance between their material achievement and their internal life, so that, though in one way so adventurous and forward looking, in another way they remained close to their tribal and country origins."

This is an interesting theory, but one that would hardly be accepted by the Sikhs themselves; later, when Naipaul seems to suggest that the "emotional flaw" is in fact the Sikh persecution complex and "perhaps even the wish to be persecuted" that has been inspired by the suffering and martyrdom of the religion's great gurus, he is trafficking in conventional wisdom and dangerous stereotypes. What he deals with only briefly, through the spotty career of Kuldip, a Sikh "activist" in hiding from the police, is in fact one of the most fundamental causes of Sikh violence in the Punjab: the vast numbers of young men, the younger brothers who did not inherit the shrinking family farms, who were cut loose from the old way of life and unable to find jobs in the new. Left out of the Punjab's prosperity, they turned to gangs and crime.

By the end of his journey, Naipaul has interviewed a representative of nearly every major dissident group in India. And yet, he hasn't really proved how the "million little mutinies" add up to a unified India. As much as I want to believe him, his conclusion seems a leap of faith. But that is all right; India is a country that requires in its sympathizers many such leaps of faith. The important thing to remember is that there is nothing inevitable about the survival of India, and for that reason, it remains one of the world's great dramas. At a time when ethnic conflict is splitting apart the Soviet Union, the Middle East and so many other parts of the world, the rest of us can turn to India and see how a nation might accommodate -- and perhaps transcend -- so many warring interest groups. Naipaul's book is a great document of that idea. Elisabeth Bumiller is the author of "May You Be the Mother of A Hundred Sons: A Journey Among the Women of India." She lived for three and a half years in New Delhi, and now writes for The Washington Post from Tokyo.