Review: Victory City by Salman Rushdie
Rushdie extends the colonial imagination to the arrival of the Portuguese in India in this novel whose heart is the story of the historical Vijayanagar, recast in the texture of a southern Mahabharata
There is an iconic moment in Cervantes’ Don Quixote when the aristocrat Quixote, drunk on the romance of a feudal, medieval past long gone, goes charging at a set of windmills, calling them demons in disguise. His humble, down-to-earth squire Sancho Panza insists that they are not demons but just ordinary windmills. Unconvinced, Quixote launches his attacks, only to fall flat on his face before the wooden structures. This moment is often hailed as that of the birth of the novel in the West – a genre of banal, capitalist modernity that emerges at the end of feudal medievalism, when romances held true demons. The ordinary present has only windmills, and the realism of its frame requires a new quotidian genre, the novel.
The theory of the novel as the key genre of modern western bourgeois reality has been challenged time and again by nonwestern readers, writers, and critics, who see the romantic, the mythical, and the fabulistic – ranging from The Mahabharata to The Arabian Nights – as spiritual influences behind the modern novel materially inseparable from the rise of print culture. While 20th century postmodernism has had champions straddling Europe and Latin America – from Italo Calvino to Gabriel Garcia Marquez – few contemporary writers have challenged the ordinary realism of the novel as Salman Rushdie. Victory City is a characteristic Rushdie act – of blending history with myth and quasi-history, the scripted with the oral, the dominant with the marginal, to create the ultimate adultery that promises to contaminate the purist’s attempt to imagine Indian history as unalloyed monoculture. Accident and exigency, rather than design, shape this history, as metaphorized in the declared food habits of a key character: “I have eaten bunnies as well as cauliflowers, billy goats as well as cucumbers, and little baa-lambs as well as plain boiled rice. I have tried to avoid cows, many of which are poorly nourished, and the meat not so good.” The decision to avoid cow meat for reason no other than their malnutrition – and hence the poor impression made on the palate – is one impossible to miss in India today, where cow love has just been accentuated by the suggestion of ceremonial hugs by competent authorities.
As I read this novel over a few weeks across three continents – Asia, Africa, and Europe – it felt particularly resonant as Rushdie’s fantasy world has increasingly moved from the national to the transnational allegory, India to the Indian Ocean, nation to an increasingly mapless, time-travelling reality. At times, the allegory runs thin and predictable, as in the imagination of the “foreign pink monkeys” with “almost no hair on their bare bodies, and their bare skin a horrible pale colour”, who come in “small groups” and “ask permission to receive some of the bounty of the forest”, as a result of which “the green and brown monkeys were both seduced by the pink monkeys’ courtesies and scared in co-operation by their threats.” But Rushdie, as always, is to be credited for extending the colonial imagination way before the British in India, notably, in this novel, with the arrival of the Portuguese.
The heart of the novel is the story of the historical Vijayanagar – the victory city of the title – recast in the texture of a southern Mahabharata. The most crucial feature of this reimagination is that it’s energized by the presence of powerful women, most notably, the mother-queen-matron Pampa Kampana, whose 247-year life spans most of the novel, and in many ways, defines it. Though she marries and takes lovers early in her life, in many ways, Pampa Kampana is a Bhishma-like presence over the life of the Vijaynagar empire, not only in her epic lifespan, but more importantly, in her commitment to the land she helps name – Bisnaga in the novel, and her deeply ethical loyalty to it through its rulers, her own kinfolk.
This loyalty scales a climactic crisis during the rule of Bisnaga’s most influential ruler, the historically established figure of Krishna Deva Raya, documented as the most successful king of the Vijaynagar dynasty, who, in Rushdie’s colourful novel, seeks to be an erotic Krishna-like figure with multiple trained, gopi-like consorts even as he seeks to consolidate his sovereignty. The most powerful scene erupts when in a fit of tyrannical rage, Deva Raya orders Pampa Kampana to be blinded. The consequent moment is terrifying but unapologetically lyrical:
“They moved slowly towards the blacksmith’s forge with their captives, down the great bazaar street crowded by horrified people wailing in disbelief, slowing down as they neared the forge, as if they were unwilling to arrive. Moments later, as the shrieks of pain rose up from the forge, first a man’s cry, then a woman’s, it was possible to hear the blacksmith sobbing also, unable to bear the thing he had been ordered to do.”
By this point, nearing the end of the novel, we have grown used to experiencing much of the narrated reality through Pampa Kampana’s prophetic eyes. Her eyes are not merely physical, but they carry the vision of the future, in equal measures ethical and political, always rooted in the welfare of the kingdom as well as the pragmatism of a viable future. The loss of her eyes brings a pall down on the last few pages of the book. It brings forgiveness but also the scathing indifference of disaffiliation, as Pampa Kampana dismisses and severs all relations with a madly repentant Krishna Deva Raya. “’What can I do?’ Krishnadevaraya pleaded. ‘You can leave,’ she answered. ‘I will never see you again either.’” It is the power of a very special blind woman who can unsee a pleading king.
Blindness has emerged as one of the most powerful tropes of literature. From the blind Homer and his sensuous metaphors to the intense kinship between blindness and spirituality in John Milton, it has shaped the psychedelic musicality of the near-blind James Joyce and has surfaced in the eerie social imaginary of José Saramago.
Having completed Victory City a few weeks before he was brutally attacked, Salman Rushdie did not know that the image of him, blinded in one eye by the violent onslaught would become a powerful symbol of the eternally subversive freedom of literature. But it will now be forever impossible to read the prophetic blindness of this novel’s protagonist as apart from attacked, mutilated, but victorious face of its creator.
Saikat Majumdar’s novels include The Firebird/Play House, The Scent of God, and The Middle Finger. @_saikatmajumdar
The views expressed are personal