A girl who saw flames engulfing everything that she loved, grows up in a monastery and gives birth to a sprawling city, in which she wanted women to have the same position as men. She lives for two hundred and fifty years without aging, and takes important part in the events of that city, that eventually evolved into a mighty empire, leading to its rise and eventual fall. Her gift of longevity turns out to be her curse, when all her desires, her ideals and her ambitions crumble around her.
When I started reading the latest novel by Salman Rushdie, titled Victory City, I felt it was a simple story by author's standards, sort of a Rushdie version of Ponniyin Selvan. I was disappointed that it lacked the complex layers of Midnight's Children or of The Satanic Verses. But around half way mark, I suspected I was wrong. This one appeared to be a lot more complex than I thought. I had to re-read many chapters to dig out many elements that I missed in my casual first reading.
The novel is set in 15th century India, and has the background of the rise and fall of Vijayanagara Empire. Many historical personalities make appearances, right from Hukka and Bukka, the two cowherds who found the empire, to Krishna Deva Raya, who turned out to be the last mighty ruler of the dynasty. Rushdie superimpose the story of a fictional undying feminist matriarch named Pampa Kampana who narrates the history of Bisnaga, the name for the empire that is used in the narrative, and uses his touch of magical realism to mirror the current socio-political scenario.
Salman Rushdie employs the narrative structure of Indian epics like Ramayanam and Mahabharatam in the composition of Victory City. In the above mentioned Indian epics and other works like Katha Saritsagaram or Panchatantram, narration happens at different levels. Similarly in Victory City, the story is told by a modern narrator based on a text recovered from the ruins of the ancient city. Another aspect that he adopted is the narrator who directly affect the narration, like Vyasa and Valmiki who appear at crucial moments and interfere in the events of the story, causing significant impacts on it.
Like the epics, Victory City is also cyclical in its story telling. The book's opening sentence briefly describe its ending and is a giant spoiler of everything to come. The story starts with the image of a severed head filled with straw travelling across the country and also ends with it. The history of Bisnaga empire, in its two hundred and fifty years of being, witness several cycles of secular liberalism, religious fanaticism, oppression of minorities and women and the celebration of it. Pampa Kampana who is responsible for the birth of the empire and also for starting several cycles of liberalism in the empire, ironically gets trapped and helplessly imprisoned inside this cycle.
There are several instances in Victory City, where Rushdie liberally lifts situations from epics, fairy tales and history and employs them in his narration, twisting and subverting them in the process. Telepathic capacity of a minister to see a distant war and give a running commentary to the blind king is parodied as the capacity of a blind queen to relay the progress of a war to her scribe. Pink monkeys arrive in a forest for trade with brown and green monkeys ultimately becoming their masters by threats. A queen sleeping for years wakes up after a princess, of her own succession, kiss her. These parodies, when projected through the prism of magical realism transcend the situation from which they are picked and starts emitting new contexts and meaning.
The narrator of Victory City is a nameless person from our times who tries to translate an epic poem that was excavated from the ruins of Vijaya Nagara. This person never reveals their gender, identity or nationality and only thing that we know is an admission of the author not being a scholar but "a spinner of yarns" and that his retelling is meant to entertain everyone. This is very important because the reader has to be aware that what we are reading is not an objective history and neither does author or narrator claim it to be. This story is a modern retelling of historic events seen through the eyes of someone who claims to have lived in it.
In many places, the narrator or more possibly another editor or a team, has made alterations as evident by footnotes that tries to interpret Pampa's verses and informs of omission of parts that are too fantastic for modern readers. The language of conversations in the story is very contemporary (with recent slangs coming in sometimes) and devoid of formalities and protocols associated with kings and queens which make the reader suspect of what all elements are added in or removed from the original epic to make it palatable.
Using all these techniques, Rushdie spins an epic that doesn't claim to be true (like the fake history that Pampa Kampana whispers into the inhabitants of Bisnaga), that never tries to be great (evident by the admission of the narrators(?)) and has several strands of subjective realities that interfere with the notions of historic accuracy and political correctness. On its first reading, Victory City project itself as a feminist fable that also champions modern concepts of inclusiveness and representation. But Rushdie does a subtle deconstruction of these concepts and project a disfigured caricature of them. I can almost see his wicked wink that lampoons the trend of editing historical markers to make it palatable for the contemporary taste.
He wants the reader to realise that history is not a linear narration of documented truth. Once history happens, it lives a life of its own through re-tellings, re-writings, exaggeration, multi perspective narrations, dumping down and memory lapses. Pampa Kampana tries to channel history according to her whims and gets defeated spectacularly every time. Though she becomes temporarily victorious by manipulating the thought process of a populace, history chews her out eventually.
Maybe this is what human history was: the brief illusion of happy victories set in a long continuum of bitter, disillusioning defeats.