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Victory City

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Victory City has been eagerly awaited, given that this publication follows the horrific attack which he survived in Chautauqua, New York, on August 12, 2022, by a twenty-four-year-old young man Hadi Matar.

Rushdie had lived for many years in hiding after the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa or death edict against him in 1989, for the publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel which offended many Muslims, even while it was hailed by many as a celebration of migrant lives and the hybrid cultures migrants create in countries like Britain.

Murder and mayhem

While Rushdie continued to write and work under the protection of the British police, his Italian translator was beaten and attacked with a knife and his Japanese translator was stabbed to death in 1991. This attack on Rushdie in 2022 came several decades after these events, at a time when he was resuming a more normal life with public appearances and lectures. The attack in Chautauqua was apparently an attempt to carry out the fatwa issued so long ago. The attack has been described as “colossal” and had left Rushdie with multiple injuries. Fortunately, he survived the attack even though he has lost vision in one eye and is struggling to regain sensation in his hand to be able to write.

Victory City was already in the press when Rushdie was attacked. However, it proves to be a prophetic tale. The protagonist Pampa Kampana is the creator of a medieval kingdom in south India, modeled after the Vijayanagar Empire. More than being a mythical founder of the kingdom and its queen more than once, Pampa is the author of the epic Jayaparajaya, in which she records the rise and fall of this kingdom. The novel is a paean to the act of writing and the endurance of the written word. After several centuries, the kingdom is decisively defeated, but what survives for posterity is Pampa’s epic.

The Vijayanagaram Back Story

The saga of the kingdom of Victory City is based on well-known historical facts. The Vijayanagar kingdom began with the Sangama dynasty whose first kings were cowherds. It reached its glorious golden age under Krishnadeva Raya, and eventually lost it power when the Muslim rulers of the Deccan unified and fought against it.

Rushdie layers this historical framework with elements of magic and fantasy. Pampa is a woman who has lost her mother in her childhood and has faced abuse at the hands of a holy priest, but the goddess of the city rewards her with many gifts, the power of prophecy, the gift of near eternal youth and immortality for more than two centuries.

Pampa vs medieval patriarchy

In a medieval patriarchal world, Pampa embodies the power of creativity, wisdom, and feminine power. Her arch-enemy is Vidysasgar, the old priest who had abused her and who believes in a narrow religious dogma and intolerance of other faiths. Pampa, although blessed by the goddess, values the human imagination over the workings of any religious institution. 

Throughout her long life, she witnesses and participates in many waves of history, many movements veering towards religious authoritarianism as well as people’s resistance to these in the form of popular uprisings. Pampa is instrumental in whispering and instigating some of these changes. However, Pampa does not have unlimited powers and she too falls victim to courtly intrigue and has to pay the price by being blinded by King Krishnadeva Raya.

Rushdie’s predicament with blasphemy

This is almost prophetic of Rushdie’s own predicament as the blind artist. It is a trope that has surfaced in his wrings before. The figure of the artist arousing the ire of religious authorities is a continuing presence in Rushdie’s novels.

In The Satanic Verses, Baal is the satiric poet who goes into hiding in a brothel and is later found and executed. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, Aurora the secular artist and her work provokes scandal and protests by a character who is a thinly veiled portrait of Bal Thackeray. Both The Satanic Verses and The Moor’s Last Sigh have been banned because of charges of blasphemy and unfavorable depiction of political figures, respectively.

In Victory City, the opposition between religious leaders and artists, and intellectuals is just as strong as ever. However, because of choosing to dramatize this conflict in a medieval setting, this novel is unlikely to offend any present-day political figures. Moreover, this novel seems to be offering a long view of the fate of religious authoritarianism and political dictatorships.

Victors write the history

Rushdie seems to be suggesting that no reign or ideology is forever. Beyond a certain point, people will rise up to challenge and overthrow arcane institutions and practices. The greater danger, Rushdie suggests is our tendency to forget history and be selective in what we remember and record.

One of the most resonant comments about history in the novel is when Pampa reflects “History is the consequence not only of people’s actions but also of their forgetfulness” (153).

At a time when the recording and teaching of Indian history are mired in varied controversies, Rushdie is still advocating for the writing of India’s palimpsestic and multicultural past. Victory City achieves the stature of Rushdie’s finest works and instills in readers a sense of gratitude that this author is still living and writing.

Victory City : A Novel
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, February, 2023

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English and Philosophy and Chair of the Literature Committee at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Wisconsin's Polytechnic University.