Salman Rushdie’s 16th novel chronicles the birth, rise, and the downfall of the empire known as Vijaynagar or, “Victory City”. Told as a fictional retelling of an epic Sanskrit poem, “Victory City” explores the notions of history—how it happened, who remembers it, who recorded it, and how it is seen through today’s lens. As the protagonist Pampa Kampana says, “History is the consequence not only of people’s actions but also their forgetfulness.” And it is no coincidence that Rushdie, by trade, is a historian whose novels are not only a reflection of his literary prowess but also his ability to weave historical fact with the threads of fiction. “Victory City” is no different as it portrays the Indian subcontinent on the verge of European invasion.
The reader is taken on a magic carpet ride through this forgotten history and made to think of the relevance the story has with today’s world. The novel begins with Pampa Kampana, a nine-year-old who watches her mother, along with the other women of her village, walk into the flames of satti. With all the men of their village killed in a bloody war, the women build a fire and silently step into their own demise. So strong is this image in Pampa’s mind that the trauma never truly leaves her. When her namesake goddess visits her, bestowing upon her magical powers and the ability to live for 247 years, Pampa is left reeling with the desire to build a world where such traumas don’t repeat themselves.
And when she is visited by two cowherders, Hukka and Bukka, she gives them magical seeds to grow the “miracle city” of Bisnaga that has temples, palaces, a bustling bazaar, and armies with battle elephants. Her vision for the perfect empire rests on the foundations of women empowerment, art, culture, and education, but throughout the reigns of its various kings, the city of Bisnaga falls prey to greed. Pampa Kampana’s journey is akin to that of ancient sagas told before like the Iliad or the Odyssey compressed into a modern-day novel. Her life continuously oscillates between joy and misery as she becomes Queen of Bisnaga and falls in love with a travelling foreigner with whom she has three children. But she’s soon forced into exile into the jungle after the city begins to fall prey to power struggles and the efforts to maintain one standard belief system. And it isn’t long until “the higher mysticism eluded them entirely and religion became, for them, no more than a tool for the maintenance of social control.”
Along with serious allegory and emphatic prose, Rushdie’s comedic genius shines throughout the book. He has the last laugh on Rudyard Kipling (who depicted Indians as lowly apes in The Jungle Book) when he describes mysterious pink monkeys (assumed to be members of the East India Company) vying to take over land and resources of the exuberant jungles of the South. Along with that, he plays on the strings of the reader’s imagination presenting lavish images of epic war scenes involving behemoth elephants with hundreds of thousands of bloodied soldiers. But, eventually, this saga is after all a tragedy and Pampa Kampana, under the vicious cloud of her childhood trauma, can do nothing but watch as everyone around her is born, struggles for power, and eventually faces their demise. Victory City leaves in its wake the aftermath of an emotional ride that has it all: life and death, love and betrayal.
It also makes one wonder how such elaborate and interwoven tales could erupt from the lone forest of Rushdie’s imagination. Like his other novels, it leaves the haunting significance of its contemporary relevance. The struggle for power in the forever changing landscape of empires in the backdrop of a world where cultures are learning to come together.
One thing is for sure, despite anyone’s opinion of Salman Rushdie, he is and will remain one of the greatest storytellers of our time and Victory City might be his finest masterpiece. And so, it becomes difficult to ignore Pampa Kampana parting words at the end of the novel, “All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors.”
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