Rising from the Ashes
On August 12, 2022, the world of literature was rocked by one act of violence toward one of its most revered albeit most controversial names. While delivering a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution, a not-for-profit community on Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York State, Salman Rushdie was stabbed several times. At the crime scene, 24-year-old Hadi Matar was immediately arrested. Matar was the son of refugees who migrated from Yaroun in the south of Lebanon; it is a village known for its sympathy for Hezbollah and the Iranian government. Rushdie was rushed immediately to the hospital and, thankfully, he was able to survive, to the suspect’s surprise and disappointment. Unfortunately, Rushdie had lost sight in one eye and the use of one hand. The world of literature was left stunned and rendered speechless by the public act of violence.
Perhaps ironically, the subject of Rushdie’s lecture was the United States being a safe haven for threatened writers. To understand Rushdie’s story or the Rushdie affair as some would call it, we have to flashback thirty-four years ago. Following the publication of Rushdie’s fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988, Rushdie has been hounded by controversy. The novel earned the ire of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who, in the wake of the book’s publication, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination. This has set into motion a flurry of death threats which crystallized into actual assassination attempts. As such, Rushdie had to live incognito for years. He lived a peripatetic existence and in 2000, he permanently settled in the United States. With the passage of time, the strict security measures he took became more relaxed although the threats to his life kept haunting him.
Rushdie’s extremist and radical detractors had a field day during the stabbing incident, with some even celebrating it. They believed that they have sent a strong message across. But little did they know, the incident would only strengthen his resolve. If history is any indicator, Rushdie is not one to be silenced by such threats. He is resilient and rarely cowers in front of such challenges. While in hiding following the Rushdie affair, he kept on writing and publishing his works. Fatwa or not, Rushdie is not going to let himself or his craft be muted. He used his craft to send his message across. The latest incident, for sure, is not going to silence him. He will make sure that his defiant voice will not be drowned by the pandemonium around him.
“Fictions could be as powerful as histories, revealing the new people to themselves, allowing them to understand their own natures and the natures of those around them, and making them real. This was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were no more than make-believe but they created the truth, and brought into being a city and an army with all the rich diversity of nonfictional people with deep roots in the actually existing world.”~ Salman Rushdie, Victory City
True enough, following the incident, it was announced that Rushdie is going to publish a new work in early 2023, Victory City. His fifteenth novel, Victory City is a fictional account of the rise and fall of Vijayanagar, the titular Victory City. Vijayanagar literally translates to City of Victory: “The story of Bisnaga began in the fourteenth century of the Common Era, in the south of what we now call India, Bharat, Hindustan.” The city’s rise started with the fall of another. Over in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, the Delhi sultanate has gathered esteem and was steamrolling the smaller kingdoms around it. One of the conquered was the tiny principality of Kampili. Its “ersatz” ruler, Kampila Raya, was beheaded and his head was stuffed with straw and sent to Delhi for the sultan to do what he pleases with it.
The survivors of Kampili – women whose sons and husbands perished during the “insignificant” battle – however, refused to acknowledge and bow down before their new rulers. In a final act of defiance that would shape the history of the subcontinent, the female survivors unanimously decided to sacrifice themselves in an act of jauhar, a collective self-immolation. They lit a pyre and walked into it, committing mass suicide. Nine-year-old Pampa Kampana watched as her mother and the women she once knew were slowly engulfed in flames. Despite her age, she understood that her “childhood was over and from now on she must conduct herself as an adult and never commit her mother’s last mistake”. With this resolution came a celestial voice of her namesake, the goddess Pampa, one of the local names of the goddess of Parvati. Parvati is the wife of Shiva.
Following this encounter, Pampa Kampana spent nine years in a cave where a twenty-five-year-old scholar-cum-priest, Vidyasagar, was in residence; Vidyasagar literally translates as “ocean of knowledge”. During this period, Pampa Kampana kept to herself and refused to speak. At the end of the ninth year, two cowherds from the hill town of Gooty, brothers Hukka and Bukka Sangama, came to the cave for a call to Vidyasagar. They were “local boys” who escaped from the north after they were captured by the Delhi sultanate. They were also carrying seeds that would change their lives forever. After nine years of living silently, Pampa Kampana finally made her voice heard and asked the brothers to scatter the seeds on the ground. From these seeds grew the city of Vijayanagar.
As the saying goes, the rest was history. The older of the two brothers, Hukka would be appointed the king of the newly found city while Pampa Kampana was its overseer and prophetess. Vidyasagar was also a trusted advisor to the new royal court. Pampa Kampana would also be the chronicler of the city’s history. She captured the rise and fall of the city and its attached empire. Their trials and tribulations were the backbones of the story. Pampa Kampana captured everything she witnessed in an epic poem called Jayaparajaya; this is a fictional epic upon which the novel was predicated. Jayaparajaya translates as “Victory and Defeat”. The poem would only be discovered after four hundred and fifty years.
“Yes, I’ve spent my life wandering, rootless, not knowing where I came from, where I belonged, or who if I ever found that place, I might become. If there’s a chance now for me to become a real part of something, to join myself to an ancient tradition and become part of the ruling dynasty as well, then I will happily do it, and you should understand why. To stand by the side of the king will allow me to believe that my journeying is at an end, and that I can finally put down my roots.”~ Salman Rushdie, Victory City
Going back to the Indian subcontinent, Victory City, in a way, feels like a homecoming for Rushdie. His last two novels, The Golden House and Quichotte, were primarily set in the United States. While both books made references to India – it is inevitable – these books grappled with subjects associated with their primary setting. The exploration of history is another hallmark of Rushdie’s prose that was visibly missing in these two books. In writing Victory City, Rushdie converged history with elements of fantasy and mythology. Rushdie’s oeuvre is renowned for its magical realist qualities; the Booker of Bookers, Midnight’s Children, is a fine example of this wonderful mix of history and magical realism.
In a way, Vijayanagar, or Bisnaga as it would be called, was a microcosm of the history of equally powerful and influential city-states of its time. The story of its rise and fall, its trials and tribulations, shares parallels to the history of other city-states. For two centuries, Vijayanagar held its ground, a gem in southern India, and the envy of the other cities surrounding it. Victory City also captured the lives of Indian monarchs, the circle upon which Pampa Kampana moved around. As can be gleaned from history, some of these monarchs are weak, leading the kingdom toward inevitable ruination. Some are easily influenced by their advisors and by the people around them. Then once in a blue moon arrive strong and charismatic leaders. They will steer the kingdom to its golden age. They are also surrounded by an interesting cast of characters whose motivations are not always clear. There were some who exploited their position for personal gain.
Power dynamics were subtly underscored in the story. The story also tackled dysfunctional families and family dynamics. It also depicted the selection process for the king’s senior wife, junior wife, and even his harem. There was also an undertone of romance. But if there was another seminal subject tackled in the story, it was the dismantling of the patriarchy. Rushdie, more than in his previous works, has riddled his latest novel with feminist ideas. During Pampa’s encounter with her namesake, the goddess instructed her to “fight to make sure that no more women are ever burned in this fashion, and that men start considering women in new ways”. There were also betrayals, greed, and moral corruption.
The novel also contained pleas for tolerance, in different forms, including religious, perhaps an offshoot of the Rushdie affair. All throughout the story, there were portrayals of the call for respect despite the differences in opinions and backgrounds. Injustices riddled the story but the characters, time and again, called for sobriety, wanting justice and equality to prevail. The story, in more than one way, is a reflection and a study of modern society. While religious freedom and tolerance were advocated, it is also of note that the story emphasized the separation of the state and religion.
“I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape it. I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape it. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape it. There is no way to escape being separated from everyone I love, and all that is dear to me. My actions are my only true belongings. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”~ Salman Rushdie, Victory City
There was also a little fixation on names and how they are precursors to events. Apart from being the name of the main character and a goddess, Pampa was the name of a river. Sangama was a sign used by Pampa for giving the Sangama brothers with the task of planting seeds; sangam means confluence “and so it also means the flowing together of different parts to make a new kind of whole.” Naming the city was also a riveting and even humorous affair. Pampa refused to have it be named after her as it would be vanity. In the end, it was called Bisnaga after Domingo Nunes, a Portuguese visitor, botched the pronunciation of Vijayanagar.
While history was the prevailing theme, as the story advanced, it was increasingly becoming palpable what Rushdie was trying to accomplish in his newest work. More than history, Rushdie was steering the story’s direction toward the understanding of the process of writing about history. The study of writing history was further expounded through the presence of two voices. Apart from the voice of Pampa Kampana, an omniscient narrator alternates with her voice. The narrator also gave alternative versions of the stories. At one point, the narrator voiced out: “We knew only the ruins that remained, and our memory of its history was ruined as well, by the passage of time, the imperfections of memory.”
Understanding the process of writing history has become seminal in the contemporary. It has become palpable how history and memory have recently been besieged by revisionism and distortions. Rushdie takes a jab toward populist regimes who are intent on exploiting the vulnerability of history and memory for their political gain. Their ascent was usually coupled with attacks on the credibility of history and how it was written. More than ever, it has become imperative to understand how history is studied and argued over, especially in the context of the contemporary.
To study and appreciate Victory City in light of the recent chain of events – the book, however, was completed before the stabbing – would undermine the brilliance of Rushdie’s latest novel. On its own, Victory City is a triumph of writing and storytelling. Rushdie was stellar in weaving together elements of history, mythology, fantasy, and magic into one cohesive and lush tapestry. The exploration of history and the process behind how it is captured in words gave the story an interesting texture: “History is the consequence not only of people’s actions but also their forgetfulness. There were blemishes here and there, even some repetitive scenes and images, but the book did a remarkable job of reminding the readers of the brilliance of Rushdie’s storytelling. Victory City consolidated Rushdie’s stranglehold as one of the contemporary’s foremost storytellers.
The book’s message was perfectly captured in the book’s closing lines: “I, Pampa Kampana, am the author of this book. I have lived to see an empire rise and fall. How are they remembered now, these kings, these queens? They exist now only in words. While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both. Now they are neither. Words are the only victors. What they did, or thought, or felt, no longer exists. Only these words describing those things remain. They will be remembered in the way I have chosen to remember them. Their deeds will only be known in the way they have been set down. They will mean what I wish them to mean. I myself am nothing now. All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors.”
For a writer who had to weather storms and navigate turbulence time and again, these immortal lines also perfectly captured what Rushdie has stood up for. Indeed, “Words are the only victors.”
Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 28%
Writing (25%) – 24%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I was one of many who was left stunned by the news of Salman Rushdie’s stabbing. The act of violence, executed remorselessly at that, rendered me speechless. I was relieved when I learned that Rushdie survived although at some cost, You see, over time, Rushdie captured my interest and earned a gain a fan in me. Midnight’s Children is one of my all-time favorites. It is the book that made me want to read his other works, including the very controversial The Satanic Verses. For sure, Rushdie is currently one of my favorite writers. However, I must admit that I was a little underwhelmed by his last two books, The Golden House and Quichotte. When I learned that he was releasing a new work in early 2023, I was excited. I immediately added Victory City to my reading list and thankfully, I was able to to obtain a copy of the book. I was caught off guard by the book as it was different from his previous two works. But I am glad for it felt like a return to form, apart from it being a homecoming of some sort. I greatly enjoyed the book which is also my tenth novel by Rushdie. The level of research poured into writing the novel was also astounding. Rushdie’s status as one of the contemporary’s premier storytellers is undeniable. Victory City is the triumph of storytelling.
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Random House
Publishing Date: February 2023
Number of Pages: 331
Genre: Historical, Mythology, Magical Realism
In the wake of an unimportant battle between two long-forgotten kingdoms in fourteenth-century southern India, a nine-year-old girl has a divine encounter that will change the course of history. After witnessing the death of her mother, the grief-stricken Pampa Kampana becomes a vessel for her namesake, the goddess Pampa, who begins to speak out of the girl’s mouth. Granting her powers beyond Pampa Kampana’s comprehension, the goddess tells the girl that she will be instrumental in the rise of a great city called Bisnaga – “victory city” – the wonder of the world.
Over the next 250 years, Pampa Kampana’s life becomes deeply interwoven with Bisnaga’s from its literal sowing from a bag of magic seeds to its tragic ruination in the most human of ways: the hubris of those in power. Whispering Bisnaga and its citizens into existence, Pampa Kampana attempts to make good on the task that the goddess set for her: to give women equal agency in a patriarchal world. But all stories have a way of getting away from their creator, and Bisnaga’s is no exception. As years pass, rules come and go, battles are won and lost, and allegiances shift, the very fabric of Bisnaga becomes an ever more complex tapestry – with Pampa Kampana at its center.
Brilliantly narrated in the style of an ancient epic, Victory City is a saga of love, adventure, and myth that it is in itself a testament to the power of storytelling.
About the Author
To know more about Salman Rushdie, click here.