The Woman King: ’Victory City’ has the Predictive Heft of Salman Rushdie’s Written Word
- I enjoyed reading every word of the novel because of Rushdie’s remarkable writing style, and because the protagonist is a strong female matriarch.
“While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both
Now they are neither
Words are the only victors.”
Salman Rushdie’s “Victory City” is not a retelling of ancient epics although it has elements of the Ramayana — exile in the enchanted Kishkindha forest dominated by monkeys and the descendants of monkey God Hanuman. Rushdie borrows heavily from his childhood influences of the great Indian epics, Arabian Nights, the anthropomorphic Panchatantra (that inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “Jungle book”), and lifelong devotion to reading science fiction along with Shakespeare, Faulkner, Wharton, Naipaul and (Ozymandias) Percy Bysshe Shelley.
“Victory City” is entrenched in an ancient city in Southern India where women committed mass suicide after the death of their husbands in a territorial battle. In the early 14th century lived two kings (Hukka and Bukka) who founded the city of Vijaynagar which means Victory City gleaned as the title for his 16th novel. The empire was very progressive at one time, and an interesting crossroads for sailors and scholars from all over the world. The walled capital city boasted great architecture and a diverse lifestyle with flourishing arts and crafts. The empire had a vast army and relied on war elephants and trained cavalry to vanquish the neighboring kingdoms. The city went through cycles of glory and doom and finally succumbed to a massive military defeat at the hand of Muslim sultanates from the north in 1565.
Now, the erstwhile Vijayanagar empire is in ruins, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The broken stone artifacts, the disfigured statues reminiscent of Khajuraho, and the records left by Portuguese and Florentine travelers tell us a story. And Salman Rushdie picks these stray threads, listens to folklore, unscrambles dense ancient local texts and narrates the tale of Pampa Kampana.
Pampa Kampana, the protagonist, is only nine years old when her mother leaves her hand and walks into the wall of fire, committing Jauhar. As a child she cannot forget this horrifying trauma and nor can she forget the blood-curdling stench of burning human flesh made worse by the fumes of sandalwood and cloves erupting from the mass pyre.
She loses her speech but gains transcendental powers blessed by the goddess Parvati herself passing through her body. She takes refuge in a cave with an ascetic Vidyasagar and starts concocting her tale. Several centuries later her epic poem Jayaparajaya (Victory and Loss) is discovered by the narrator buried in a clay pot.
The narrator (Rushdie?) translates the fantabulous tale into English prose, smattered with Sanskrit, Chinese, Turkish and Iberian languages. “Victory City” is long (344 pages) because it stretches over 238 years, the life span of Pampa Kampana. But it is verbose also because Rushdie is artful in spinning stories, and infusing them with wondrous details of sights, smells, texture, magic, myriad human emotions, and the interaction of all elements of nature and the different cosmic realms. He reminds me of a juggler or a flame thrower who is adept at keeping the attention of his audience, lest they slay him if he makes them yawn. Much like Sheherzade.
Pampa Kampana gives a bag of seeds to two ordinary cowherds turned soldiers and whispers life into these seeds to grow a bustling city with scrawny cows, stray dogs, crows, cheels, parrots and people. She even gives these “zombies” memories and a sense of purpose. The brothers became great kings, first Hukka and then Bukka, and Pampa married them each in turn, though her true love was a Portuguese horse trader with red hair and green eyes.
So enamored was Pampa by this alien that she named the city upon his mispronunciation of Vijaynagar or Bijaynagar to Bisanaga. Not only did the Portuguese stranger father her three green-eyed daughters but showed the Sangamas how to make fireworks and guns. Pampa (?Rushdie?) for some reason has a penchant for people from the Iberian peninsula but finally tires of them saying that “they all look the same.”Hilarious!
Nevertheless, Pampa Kampana becomes a powerful queen. Banishes her three impudent sons and runs away in exile with her three ‘gifted” and beautiful daughters: Yotshna, Yukasri and Zeralda. Because of the boon by the Goddess, Pampa ages so slowly that she looked younger than her own children and generations of granddaughters. This is her Achilles heel because she has to see them all die one by one and mourn their loss. She is somewhat detached from maternal instincts and always questions her role as a mother to her children.
Her energies are directed towards saving and writing tirelessly about her once shimmering secular “miracle city” where women were warriors, dancers, doctors, priests and architects she watches the downfall of the progressive attitudes and fearful uprising of radical religious edicts in the reign of the king Bukka the 2nd. Also called “No. 2,” she gave power to Pampa’s main adversary. Who was now a very old but more sinister Hindu high priest.
Vidyasagar whose long white beard wrapped around his boney frame like a druid. The influence of temples and monasteries remained even in the reign of Krishnadeva, who dressed like a Sultan but behaved like Lord Krishna with his seven gopis. Pampa comes out of her hiding and visits the city of her dreams with her great-granddaughter (several times removed) Zeralda who marries the king and dies in childbirth. Apart from this, there are yaalis, messenger crows, madmasti hathis, Ibn-Batuta, Tenali Raman, Master Li-Ye-He, a Chinese martial arts grandmaster, and a simmering pot of myth and allegory.
I think of “Midnight’s Children” (1981), the novel that won Rushdie the Booker and brought him international fame. I am familiar with “Midnight’s Children” and I can see the birth of a nation struggling for identity as the clock strikes midnight and the “palms of the clock hands join in Namaste. Rushdie’s sensitive development of the protagonist Saleem Sinai who is mistreated by everyone because of his strange sniffling nose and disability is exceptional.
Why I bring up “Midnight’s Children” is that like Rushdie, I recently went on a short trip to India and was subjected to the nerve-racking chaos that personifies India today with its burgeoning growth of the urban sector. After a whirlwind of a week, I felt a desperate need to come back to my humble sanctuary in the U.S., to rest. To recoup from travel. Feed my body and nourish my soul with the foods I consumed as a child.
It so happened that I had checked out “Victory City” from my local library and I was reading it rapidly during my waking hours. I almost gave up finishing the book but I am glad that I persisted because there was an image of enamel eyes being offered to the Goddess in the beginning of the narrative that was stuck in my head and sure enough that image came a full circle when the eyes of Pampa Kampana were painfully blinded by hot iron rods. ‘Then dreams come, nightmares that leave her “sweating her lost eyesight out of every pore in her body”. It gives me goosebumps to think that Rushdie subconsciously knew that he would lose sight in one of his eyes by the brutal stabbing attack he experienced on stage in New York on August 12, 2022. Before it happened!
Still, this is not the first time that Rushdie has uncannily pointed a finger at the changing political scene of our world. He alludes to the invasion of India by the British characterizing them as “cunning” hordes of foreign pink monkeys causing a deliberate rift between the local brown and green monkeys. He also tries to remind the reader that history is cyclical and that the transformation of once secular India to a Hindu National State is happening before our eyes. I enjoyed reading every word of “Victory City” because of Salman Rushdie’s remarkable writing style and because the protagonist is a strong female matriarch. And always because of the predictive heft of the written word.
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.
Good review, although in places it seems like it was written in a hurry? Also I chuckled at the description of 344 pages as “long”.
Nonetheless a good article.