As a nine-year old, Pampa Kampana watches her mother walk unwaveringly into a bonfire of women. The mass ritual suicide, which follows the defeat of a southern kingdom by a northern army, preternaturally transforms the child’s life. As her mother’s flesh falls from her bones, Pampa receives a celestial blessing, which empowers her to seed the creation of a new kingdom, to behold the swings in its fortunes, and to live long enough (247 years) to tell its story.
The remaining 238 years of Pampa Kampana’s life—a period that begins with the defeat of the Kampili kingdom by the armies of the Delhi sultanate, the founding of Vijayanagara by Hakka and Bukka (“Birth”), its social and political blossoming under Krishnadevaraya (“Glory”), and its eventual decline and defeat in the Battle of Talikota (“Fall”)—are the historical scaffolding of Salman Rushdie’s Victory City.
It allows him to construct, in a fashion not dissimilar to that of other novels, a long and lively string of stories that intersect between the real and the imagined, traverse between the miraculous and the mundane.
In spite of the bibliography at the end of the novel, history and research sit refreshingly lightly, as they should, on this piece of fiction. Rushdie is not finicky about accuracy, recognising perhaps that fiction, or his kind of storytelling at the very least, requires a fair degree or licence or leeway, that it is a form better served by verisimilitude than veracity. So, it really does not matter, for example, that there was no one called Domingo Nunes, the name obtained from that of two Portuguese travellers (Fernao Nunes and Domingo Paes), who recorded their impressions of the Vijayanagara empire. Neither is it relevant that Fernao Nunes and Domingo Paes arrived at the gates of what they knew as Bisnaga only in the 16th century and not, as Rushdie’s fictional hybrid does, during the reign of the founding ruler of the Sangama dynasty, Harihara 1 (Hakka).
It is the early years of the Vijayanagara empire and those of its greatest glory under Krishnadevaraya before its defeat and fragmentation under his son-in-law Aliya Rama Rao that (understandably) occupies most of his attention. It appears as though Pampa Kampana herself acknowledges this when she tells herself that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. “But if the middle is unnaturally prolonged then the story is no longer a pleasure. It is a curse.”
Book on a book
Bisnaga or Vijayanagara is Pampa Kampana’s creation and Victory City is her chronicle, told in the form of a narrative poem in Sanskrit of 24,000 verses and discovered buried in a pot long after she is dead. Yet, she is not the narrator, the book being the work of an unnamed person “who is neither a scholar nor a poet but a spinner of yarns” who seeks to retell her story “in plainer language” and “for the simple entertainment and possible edification of today’s readers”, including everyone from scions of nobility to rank commoners, from good people to rogues, and from humble sages to egotistical fools.
A book about another book allows Rushdie’s narrator some clever historiographical play. For example, was the Italian traveller Niccolò de’ Vieri accurate in saying that Narasimha had ordered that his half-brother Krishnadevaraya be blinded and his eyes be brought as proof? (Never mind again that it was really Niccolò de’ Conti and that he visited a century earlier.) Or was Pampa’s version that Narasimha willingly gave up the throne to his younger sibling correct?
Map of time
Pampa Kampana’s long life is intimately interwoven with Bisnaga’s. I am a map of time, she declares to her great-great-great- granddaughter Zeralda Li. “Just as you can see how here connects to there, so I perceive how then is joined to now.” She is queen to Hukka (Hakka) and Bukka, is the lover to two Portuguese travellers, has three daughters with one of them, goes into exile in the forest following Bukka’s death, and returns to Bisnaga for the final time with Zeralda Li during the reign of Krishnadevaraya, writing the last page of her narrative poem, the Jayaparajaya, after the city is ruined. She is ready to be released from her 248-year-old life after she has buried it.
As one expects from a Rushdie novel, a torrent of characters, “real”, imagined, and fantastical, sweep through the story. Apart from the European travellers, there is the Chinese adventurer Li Ye-He, a grandmaster skilled in fighting with swords and sticks; there are powerful and conservative advaitin monks, one of whom exploits Pampa sexually when he is not poring over sacred texts; the forest is populated with mysterious wild women, who befriend one of Pampa’s daughters, and delegations of talking crows and parrots; at the royal palace, there are sagacious advisers, brave warriors, scheming mothers, and others.
The narrative is linear, which is something of a departure from many of Rushdie’s other novels. But what really sets Victory City apart is the writing. The narrator’s attempt to retell Pampa’s epic poem “in plainer language” could be Rushdie’s way of saying that he has traded in his familiar effusive, exuberant larger-than-life style—a virtuosity that many have described as “verbal pyrotechnics” —for a more unfussy and straightforward one. This is Rushdie toned down, or Rushdie Lite if one may, more reminiscent of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, his most underrated novel, than any of his more recent ones. Rushdie infuses Victory City with the unbearable lightness and joyful sensation of a fairy tale.
It is the women who are foregrounded in Victory City: they are strong, independent, and resilient people who are vital to preserve a liberal order. “In old Bisnaga, women were lawyers, traders, architects, poets, everything,” Pampa tells her grandchild. Thematically, Victory City covers familiar territory, issues that have engaged Rushdie in both his fictional and non-fictional work. The decline of Bisnaga coincides with the growing influence of religious orthodoxy, which threatens the foundations of its freedom, pluralism, and multiculturalism even as it sends Pampa into exile.
“This is Rushdie toned down, or Rushdie Lite if one may, more reminiscent of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, his most underrated novel, than any of his more recent ones.”
It is a meditation on love and tolerance, on the right to dissent, and the importance of recognising that people cannot be remade according to your own wishes. Even Pampa, who creates Bisnaga through her seeds and whispers, is forced to recognise this: “Once you have created your characters, you had to be bound by their choices.… They were what they were and they would do what they would do.”
Most of all, of course, this is a book about the indestructible power of storytelling. Rushdie reminds us that while pretty much everything and everyone comes and goes—victory and defeat, prosperity and decline, visionary kings and short-sighted tyrants, those who love and those who hate—what remains forever are words. What the people of Bisnaga did, or thought, or felt no longer exists, writes Pampa in the final stanza of Jayaparajaya. “Only the words describing those things remain.... Words are the only victors.”
Mukund Padmanabhan teaches philosophy at Krea University and is former Editor of The Hindu.
- Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Victory City, is a long and lively string of stories that intersect between the real and the imagined, traverse between the miraculous and the mundane.
- With a scaffolding of historical events, it is also a book about a book.
- The narrative is linear, which is something of a departure from many of Rushdie’s other novels.
- Thematically, Victory City covers familiar territory, issues that have engaged Rushdie in both his fictional and non-fictional work.
- Above all, this is a book about the indestructible power of storytelling.
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