Victory City, A Local Habitation
Salman Rushdie’s “Victory City” is founded on solid reality
A good novel is not just a work of imagination. It is an amalgam, linking a flight of fancy, an “airy nothing”, to a “local habitation and a name”. This is the essence of Salman Rushdie’s art of magic realism. And he has done it again in his latest book ‘Victory City’.
As an inveterate Rushdie fan, I revel in his way of spinning fresh tales out of familiar places and phrases. This novel has an additional fascination, because I recognize in it the rocks and stones of cities and plains in which I had lived and worked for several years.
I have clambered over the ruined ramparts of the Raichur fort, which figures prominently in the novel, when I first began working in Karnataka. I have made several forays into Srirangapatna, the maternal home of Tirumala Devi, an important character of the novel, while I was learning the ropes as a government employee. The food and drink, the habits and beliefs of the region described in this book are an inherent part of my daily existence.
Thus, ‘Victory City’ is not a figment of Rushdie’s imagination. It is founded on solid reality. The narrative recreates an ancient city and the empires that sprung from it between the 14th and the 16th Century AD. From the Deccan plateau of South India, these kingdoms extended their influence over the northern half of the peninsula to the frontiers of Orissa in the east and Mysore in the south, despite being blocked on the north by the Sultanate, which later disintegrated into the five “Bahmani” kingdoms.
Of these, Bijapur and Bidar are today districts in Karnataka, Golconda is a fort in Telangana, while Ahmednagar and Berar are part of present-day Maharashtra. Rushdie has soaked it all up, and, as usual, the research is impeccable. The ambience of the region is evoked at every step, even when he is listing the traditional sweetmeats of its far flung areas!
In his earlier creations, ‘Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar’, Rushdie has illuminated a historical context using fictional characters. ‘Victory City’ does things differently. Here, history is itself the story. This is a linear narrative of the rise and fall of Vijaya Nagara from beginning to end. And yet, ‘Victory City’ is not a historical novel.
It is magic realism at its best: magic emerging from and blending with the little-known details of a blurred reality. The technique works because there is romance in the city’s history as well as huge gaps in our knowledge of the doings and the fate of its dynasties.
Like other great families of humble origin, the beginnings of the Sangamas, who founded the first Vijaya Nagara dynasty, are shrouded in fables and myths. But, unlike most empires, the end of the kingdom was devastating and abrupt. After less than three centuries, the last scion of a glorious empire was trounced by an alliance of its northern neighbours and the capital city was razed to the ground.
Three centuries of neglect followed before Vijaya Nagara was rediscovered with Sewell’s translation of the writings of Portuguese travellers and his famous book ‘A Forgotten Empire’. Here then is a ready-made romance, fertile ground for a novelist, who can let his imagination run riot to invent origin stories for multiple characters as well as deploy narrative skills to depict the events that led to its dramatic collapse.
But, the Vijaya Nagara story is also full of gaps and holes. When I first saw Hampi, the present site of the ancient capital, in the 1970s, there was only the dilapidated Virupaksha temple towering over scattered ruins. Since then, archaeologists, numismatists, epigraphists-the whole panoply of historical investigators-have been at work, unearthing and bringing together impressive remains of public buildings, monuments and statues.
Accessible by rail and road from Bangalore, Hampi is now the centre of a thriving tourist trade. Within the confines of our current knowledge of the site, there is ample room for novelists to fill up blanks and create fresh stories. This is where Rushdie comes in.
The colourful tales and descriptions of his novel accord well with discoveries made during excavation; the book could soon become the preferred guidebook for every visitor.
The tradecraft of mixing myth and reality is accomplished in several ways. With changes in the names of places and characters, the author distances them from historical situations, even while he ensures that they are fully recognisable. Thus, Rushdie uses the Portuguese name for the city, Bisnaga, but the title of the book, ‘Victory City’, is a literal translation of Vijaya Nagara.
One of the twin founders of the dynasty is transmuted from Harihara to Hukka to rhyme with the actual name of the second founder Bukka. Most of the kings and seers in the book, as well as the Portuguese visitors retain their historical names, but they are moved around on the novelist's chessboard as required. And the prerogative of creative invention is fully exercised to endow them with the traits needed to further the narrative.
These strands of historical fact and magical fiction are brought together through the overarching character of Pampa Kampana (the mother goddess from whom Hampi draws its name), a central figure around whom the action revolves. She is the creator and historian of Vijaya Nagara and her life runs parallel to the fortunes of the city.
She embodies its spirit, since she is the one who has imagined its every detail and whispered its beliefs into the ears of its residents. She is a participant in every major event in the story of the city. She becomes the queen consort three times by successively marrying both its founders, Hukka and Bukka, as also its greatest king, Krishna Deva Raya.
As queen regent when the monarchs go into battle, she makes policies and moulds the ethos of the city. And her time runs out only after 247 years when the city meets its dire fate at the battle of Talikota in 1565. She foresees the eventuality and prepares for it. By the time this happens, she has completed a history of Vijaya Nagara (called ‘Jayaparajaya’) and interred it in a potsherd for the discovery of posterity. This is the version that is now placed before us by an unseen and mostly unobtrusive narrator.
Pampa Kampana’s plans for Hampi seem progressive even to our modern eyes. They appear to meet with the approval of the hidden narrator too. She would like women to be considered for succession to the throne based on their abilities.
She realises that she has magic powers as the mouthpiece of goddess Parvathi, but she would like religion to be kept separate from secular life and is curious about the religious beliefs of others. She welcomes foreigners and consorts with at least two of them.
She is no kill joy and would like citizens to be fun loving and happy in their own ways. These dreams are not realised, since the kings of Vijaya Nagara, their advisers and citizens themselves can be easily manipulated by schemers and religious bigots, as happens everywhere in today’s world too.
Here, Rushdie may have drawn on some of the surprisingly modern practices of Vijaya Nagara (like women armed guards) chronicled by Portuguese traders. He may also have put his own liberal views into the mouth of his main character.
It is only as the novel draws to a close that a further layer of meaning emerges. Beyond the historical reconstruction, the magic realism and the rattling good tale, there are also references to the creative process of writing.
The voices of Pampa Kampana and of the narrator transcribing her history converge towards a fresh theme (which is a recurring concern in many other books of Rushdie too). This is the power of the written word to create characters and events, to make and unmake stories. And it is on this note that the book ends.
For readers, however, ‘Victory City’ is a novel published in the aftermath of a vicious and unprovoked public attack on the author, in which he was grievously maimed, while narrowly escaping death. We cannot miss the uncanny resemblance between this event and a turning point in Vijaya Nagara history.
The fortunes of Hampi start declining, when Krishna Deva Raya heeds the poisonous whispers of his mother-in-law and orders that his loyal minister Thimmarasu and Pampa herself are blinded for treason.
Was the incident added to the novel by Rushdie, after he had lost an eye at the hands of an attacker? Or was it prescience or coincidence? We cannot tell. What is clear though is that Rushdie’s latest book is free of hatred and bitterness. There is reconciliation, not retaliation, an unshakeable faith in humanity and the power of deathless prose.