Salman Rushdie’s magical Victory City

VS Naipaul called Vijaynagar “the last great Hindu kingdom”. Now Salman Rushdie has brought it to life in Victory City, probably his breeziest novel since Haroun and the Sea of Stories, published more than 30 years ago.

While Naipaul mourned the destruction of Vijaynagar by Muslim invaders in India: A Wounded Civilisation, and again in his last novel, Magic Seeds, Rushdie lets his imagination soar.

A fabulist, not a realist like Naipaul, he went into the back story of the ruins and resurrected the extinct kingdom with his magic realism.

Victory City is the history of the kingdom presented as a prose translation of a Sanskrit epic.

The unnamed narrator says he is retelling in plainer language the epic written by the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana more than four and a half centuries ago.

The story begins after a battle when the widows of a defeated kingdom commit mass suicide, burning to death in a great bonfire.

Pampa is nine years old when she sees her mother die in the flames. A goddess then tells the grief-stricken girl that a great city will be built there, its empire will last for more than two centuries and she will see its rise and fall.

Pampa grows into a beautiful young woman, an accomplished poet living with a monk, when she is approached by two young cowherd brothers, Hukka and Bukka, who had gone to war, been captured by Muslims, pretended to have converted to Islam to save their skins and then escaped. Now they want guidance. Pampa tells them to scatter seeds on the ground and prophesies a city will grow which they will rule.

A miracle city rises before the astonished brothers’ eyes, and people and animals stir to life.

Rusdhie depicts the transformation so vividly it’s like watching an animated film.

Later, he makes it clear that the city and its people are Pampa’s creations.

The city is called Bisnaga because the Portuguese horse trader with whom Pampa falls in love cannot say “Vijayanagar”. She loves the foreigner but marries the brothers as one succeeds the other to the throne.

Victory City mixes fantasy with realpolitik and is based on history. Founded in 1336 by the brothers Harihara and Bukka Sangama, the kingdom grew into an empire that extended from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka, Goa and parts of Maharashtra. The empire reached its peak in the early 1500s under Krishna Deva Raya, who defeated both Hindu and Muslim adversaries. But Vijayanagar declined after his death and was sacked by Muslim invaders who defeated his son-in-law, Aliya Rama Raya, in the Battle of Talikota in 1565.

Rushdie retains all these historical characters with their real names, blending history and fantasy. Pampa adds the element of magic; she knows how to transform people into birds, lives up to the age of 247, but never grows old until she dies.

The unnamed narrator mentions the epic scale of the saga. Pampa’s Sanskrit epic is as long as the Ramayana, he writes.

The Battle of Talikota, which dooms Vijaynagar, is narrated in a manner reminiscent of the Bhagavad Gita.

Sitting in Bisnaga, Pampa describes what’s happening on the battlefield far away at Talikota to her friend, the ruler Aliya Rama Raya’s wife, like Sanjaya narrating the battle of Kurukshetra to Dhritarashtra.

There is action aplenty in the novel. The politicking, jealousies in the royal court, the adventures of Pampa and her daughters make compelling reading. The narrative never flags. Rushdie writes deftly, economically.  The writing is simple and straightforward, the author trying to engage, not impress, the reader.

Victory City will be remembered as Rushdie’s last novel before he was stabbed by a zealot at a summer resort in New York state on August 12 last year. Rushdie was blinded in his right eye and his left hand badly damaged in the attack by the California-born Lebanese young man. Hadi Matar said he didn’t like Rushdie because the writer criticised Islam.

“I’ve found it very, very difficult to write,” Rushdie told the New Yorker after the attack. “I sit down to write, and nothing happens. I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day. I’m not out of that forest yet, really.”

But death threats didn’t stop him from writing after The Satanic Verses.

Now, after the stabbing, he wants to write about himself again – a sequel to Joseph Anton.

 Victory City fittingly ends with a tribute to the power of words.

Pampa Kampana concludes her epic, noting the kings and queens she has written about have all passed away. “They exist now only in words.”

In India: A Wounded Civilisation, Naipaul lamented that Vijaynagar was so little remembered that there were university students in Bangalore, 200 miles away, who hadn’t even heard of it.

Rushdie has produced a tour de force that brings Vijaynagar to life. The blend of history and fantasy is a potent combination in India, where epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata are far more popular than plain, unvarnished history.

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