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Published on: 04/16/23 5:54 AM

Book review: Victory City by Salman Rushdie

Down Hampi way

Salman Rushdie the story-teller, is back with a — to quickly borrow a term made famous recently by Deepika Padukone — banger of a book, Victory City. The story details the rise and fall of Bisnaga (Vijayanagara),  as narrated by its creator-midwife  Pampa Kampana, the woman who Will Not Age. It`s a neat intermixing of historical figures like Hukka and Bukka, the Sangama brothers who founded Vijayanagara,  and fictional figures who are deliciously given some eccentric verging on the truly odd  characteristics, habits and tics.

The plot, set in the 14th century,  combines history, fiction, magic realism (the passage where Pampa Kampana raises  the city from seeds she throws onto the ground, and whispers a history into the ears of its citizenry newly sprung from the ground, is truly compelling and vintage Rushdie),  and breathes life into what could have been just dry historical fiction. There is sly humour too, with someone villainous being described as a `danger man,` the Sangama brothers after Hukka and Bukka named Chukka, Pukka and Dev, `repeating` foreigners with green eyes and red hair, all who leave quite an impact on both Bisnaga and Pampa Kampana, and an offhand reference to `gungajumna culture. `

In fact, Victory City is Pampa Kampana`s epic poem Jayaparajaya, (Victory and Defeat) which was found buried in a pot which was, in turn, buried deep in the ground, and later dug up. The story is now being narrated by an unknown person, a `mere spinner of yarns,` as they term  themselves,  and you get a pretty good idea who they are. This narrator is whimsical; they leave droll little notes through the story, notes on monkeys, asks thoughtfully if we can believe every word of Pampa Kampana`s epic poem, talks of the constant confusion regarding the Bisnaga throne: is it a Lion Throne or a Diamond Throne?

However, it is Pampa Kampana who owns the story, through and through. This beautiful, enigmatic woman who quite literally has the magic touch, goes through life (all 247 years that she has been condemned to live) trying to subsume if not forget the trauma of her early years. She does what she has to do: birth a city, imbue each and every citizen of that city with their own personal histories, become first the Queen, then the Queen Mother, then the official Muse, then the unofficial Muse of the empire, watching it rise, fall, shine, become tarnished. Her personal trajectory is every bit as tragic as that of Bisnaga, and she endures whatever comes her way with fortitude. Right at the end she thinks to herself, I wanted to be king. And the reader knows by then that she would have made a simply magnificent king.

Towards the last chapters, it`s as if the writer`s pen sputters, then leaves splotches of ink on the page; suddenly the story looks padded with inconsequentialities, and the reader is impatient, wanting to be brought back to the main event(s).

It`s all there

But it`s all there: the incandescent glory of a powerful empire, the infructuous squabbles that keeps everything on edge, the mistakes rulers make, the squabbles between queens, how even magic has a limited shelf life, the conflation of the politics of empire with the politics of today, the last done in typical Rushdie style. There is Vidyasagar the mighty monk who, of course, was not as noble as he was made out to be.

There is an underground resistance movement named the Remonstrance, there is a Chinese wushu master, and there are the three magnificent daughters of Pampa Kampana. There is a period of exile in the jungle, where ` 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.` This future is a funny and familiar one: pink monkeys (`definitely not the children of Lord Hanuman or the remnants of Kishkinda`) who slyly creep in, then try to take over and control the forests. There is mention of the five Sultans of the Deccan and their internecine warfare. And yes, there is mention of the famous last battle at Talikota. Both hubris and Nemesis have walk-on parts, impacting the last king Krishnadevaraya, and the narrator ends with saying that words are the only victors.

And indeed, Rushdie`s words, used to spin this  engaging tale, are truly symbolic of his victory over those who would try to silence him.

Victory City By Salman Rushdie. Penguin/Hamish Hamilton Books. 338 pages.Rs 699.

This appeared in the New Sunday Express Magazine of 16 April 2023.

Related Links:

Book review: Languages of Truth by Salman Rushdie

Book review: Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Book review: The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Book review: Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Book excerpts: Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Bisnagaempire-buildingempire-razinghistorical fictionPenguin BooksPenguin Hamish Hamilton BooksSalman RushdieVictory CityVijayanagara empire

Sheila Kumar • April 16, 2023

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