Book review: Victory City

(First published in the Indian Express: read more)

Victory City

Salman Rushdie

Penguin Random House

338 pages

Rs 699

Nothing lasts. Empires crumble without leaving traces behind, much of human history is unrecorded, libraries burn, and storytellers and poets through time have lived precarious lives — shot, burned at the stake, murdered by tyrants, brutally attacked by knife-wielding men who have no understanding of their stories. 

From the start of his writing life, with first Grimus (1975), then Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1983), Salman Rushdie has written into this gap, insisting on the power of words and fictions to shape our understanding of ourselves, and our histories. 

If the storyteller throughout history has often been in danger, the transformative force of the stories they wield has also been dangerous to tyrants, the overly godly, the repressive and the humourless. Many of Rushdie’s later novels, from Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) to Quichotte (2019) are celebrations of tale tellers and creative minds from Ibn Rushd to Scheherazade to Cervantes that, taken together, have become their own vast and dazzling record of a global ocean of seas of stories. 

Victory City is a tale within a tale, the story of the purported discovery of the Jayaparajaya (Victory and Defeat), a narrative poem of 24,000 verses buried in a clay pot by a truly epic heroine, the 247-year-old Pampa Kampana, on the last day of her life. An unnamed narrator-translator raises the curtain on the legendary kingdom, Bisnaga, she brought into being with the assistance of two equally legendary characters, Hukka and Bukka, from seeds scattered in a place of rocks and dust. Goddess-blessed (or cursed), Pampa Kampana once lived in 14th century India (or Bharat, or Hindustan). The vast shadow of the Vijayanagara empire, the rich mythology of Hampi and the kingdoms of South India, are easy to glimpse behind her fictional, feminist, grand and conquering empire. 

Pampa Kampana creates this shining new world, literally, on the ashes of the past — Rushdie opens her story in desolation and fire, as her mother, Radha Kampana, joins her women friends on a vast pyre that consumes the women of a defeated kingdom, leaving her daughter with scarred memories. Pampa, just nine, makes a rousing vow: “She would laugh at death and turn her face towards life. She would not sacrifice her body merely to follow dead men into the afterworld… live, instead, to be impossibly, defiantly old.”

Fantasy and fable rise again and again from the ashes, throughout literary history, often dismissed as cumbersome tales from the past, often subsumed under brief vogues for realist fiction — but they are the oldest forms of human story, and they endure. Rushdie’s return to, and command over, the wonder tale has deep roots — as a boy, he wrote in his memoir, Joseph Anton, he listened as his father told him the wonder tales of the East, making and remaking them, in the same fashion as the fictional Rashid Khalifa does in the writer’s most beloved fable, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. And part of Victory City’s uncanny intensity stems from Rushdie’s ability to go beyond dusting off the tales of the past — he reinvents them, and breathes a new urgency into these old forms. 

“Fictions could be as powerful as histories,” he writes in Victory City, “revealing the new people to themselves, allowing them to understand their own natures and the natures of those around them, and making them real.” It does not feel like a coincidence that this novel, written in part during the pandemic, contains the seeds of both warning and healing.

Like the real-life Vijayanagar, Bisnaga’s golden age cannot last indefinitely. Its pluralism treats all, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Jain, equally, it welcomes outsiders (except for the pink monkeys, the fantastical harbingers of the plague of colonialism lying ahead) and is open to all genders, giving women roles as fighters and traders, celebrating love. But inevitably, the ascetic Vidyasagar, who taught and abused the young Pampa, and his righteous followers, will have their hour, zealots and bigots will institute a harsher, harder reign, and banishment, exile, wanderings in the forest will overtake our main characters. “In the jungle, the past is swallowed up, and only the present moment exists; but sometimes, the future arrives there ahead of time and reveals its nature before the outside world knows anything about it.” 

Intertwined between the golden gleaming threads of fable is a very human tale: if you had the gift of living (almost) endlessly, might you be lonely? Pampa Kampana outlives her children and stays youthful as her lovers age and wither. She learns that “History is the consequence, not only of people’s actions, but also of their forgetfulness”, and she finds the strength to remind citizens of who they are, and perhaps too of who she is. In a final scene, written by Rushdie months before an assailant stabbed him several times on a stage in Chautauqua, leaving him with grievous injuries and sightless in one eye, two favourite characters are blinded, their eyes put out by hot iron rods. It is hard to read these paragraphs today, but one character endures, and in time, finds their way back to words again. 

Perhaps it will take time for readers to fully absorb the true power and impact of Victory City, which features one of Rushdie’s most fully imagined and vivid heroines. This novel, among his finest, is written by a storyteller about creators and a myriad acts of creation, for all those who love, or fear, stories and have had their lives shaped by whispered stories, forgotten and remembered or mangled, misshapen histories. Readers know that words shape the world. For many decades, Rushdie has brought streams of stories together, fusing Eastern and Western narrative traditions in ways that are playful, disruptive and finally, imbued with love. “How are they remembered now, these kings, these queens? / They exist now only in words…/ Words are the only victors.” 

This human century, still young, has been swept by battles and blight, plagues and a return of world wars, and people around the world have already seesawed between bright dreams and the grinding destruction of a thousand tyrannies. Nothing lasts, Victory City reminds us, and creators are fragile, destructible; nothing lasts, except words, strong enough to echo through the sweep and fall of time, powerful enough to shape the future. 

Nilanjana S Roy is a literary critic, editor, and author, most recently of Black River






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