Salman Rushdie’s Victory City is ‘a restoration of the powers of fiction in these censorious times’

Salman Rushdie’s latest book Victory City is a reminder that fiction remains one of our most potent ways of asking how we must live

Updated - February 06, 2023 03:25 am IST

Published - February 05, 2023 12:28 am IST

Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie | Photo Credit: David Levenson

Salman Rushdie’s novels have always felt to me like stepping into an Indian Mughal miniature painting where several things are happening at once. Plot doesn’t unfold so much as exist on several planes. Look with one eye, and you may see a crocodile pop its head out of the river. Look with the other, and you may notice a pair of lovers in the bamboo grove. Time, if it is linear, is always subsumed by larger, circular time. To enter the world of his story is to accept a state of multitudinousness. Perhaps even, to experience a touch of vertigo.

Questions of belief or disbelief are quickly swatted away by the very first sentence. You understand immediately to leave those considerations at the threshold because Rushdie is never interested in the either-or continuum. He’s invested in the “and” and “and”. Reality and unreality, imagination and memory, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

His latest novel, Victory City, opens on the final day of the life of a 247-year-old blind poet Pampa Kampana, who buries her epic poem, the Jayaparajaya, in a clay pot as a message to the future. Frame established, we now enter the story with Rushdie as sutradhar, juggling the strings through so many generations and dimensions that at some point you lose count of how many Matryoshka dolls have been opened because you’re too busy marvelling at speaking panthers and parrots.

Salman Rushdie’s Victory City

Salman Rushdie’s Victory City

Of reality and constant movement

In his essay, Wonder Tales, Rushdie writes about how he was seduced by stories as a child growing up in Bombay. Hans Christian Anderson and the Arabian Nights and the Kathasaritsagar. “For me the fantastic has been a way of adding dimensions to the real,” he writes, “adding fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh dimensions to the usual three; a way of enriching and intensifying our experience of the real, rather than escaping from it into superhero-vampire fantasyland.” With its carousel of shifting politics and history, Victory City is Rushdie’s most textured and triumphant wonder tale yet.

Pampa, his protagonist, creates a city called Bisnaga (inspired by the kingdom of Vijayanagara) with magic seeds. Overnight, two brothers Bukka and Hukka watch as the city comes to life — thousands of people rising from the earth, a river bank and cantonment complete with stray dogs and bony cows. The use of seeds recalls Jack and the Beanstalk, but goes back at least to the Natyashastra where Bharata used the concept of bīja (seed), to think of the nature of dramatic movement in terms of sprouting, growing, fruition, etc.

Pampa not only seeds the empire of Bisnaga, she then whispers stories into the ears of its inhabitants giving them memories, which in turn roots them to the place, creating a grand narrative of the city. Because this is a Rushdie novel, we can hardly expect the movement to stop there. Towards the end, there’s a wonderful turn when the whispers start flowing from the descendants of the created ones into the ears of the now aged and blinded Pampa as she writes her poem in seclusion, which in a way, brings her back to the world.

With its carousel of shifting politics and history, Victory City is Salman Rushdie’s most textured and triumphant wonder tale yet.

With its carousel of shifting politics and history, Victory City is Salman Rushdie’s most textured and triumphant wonder tale yet. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The legacies of words

It is hard, while reading the book, not to think of the brutal attack made on Rushdie last August, especially given that among his many injuries was the loss of an eye. Unlike the authors of the epic poems Rushdie is so clearly doffing his hat to in Victory City — Valmiki and Vyasa — of whom we have scant biographical details and whose lives have little relationship to their work, the events of Rushdie’s life are constantly being tied to his work, no matter how fantastical. For those of us who see Rushdie as a champion of free speech, Victory City is not just a restoration of the powers of fiction in these censorious times, it is also a reminder that fiction remains one of our most potent ways of asking how we must live.

Sixteen Januaries ago, in a Delhi barsati, I met Salman Rushdie at a small dinner party. What I remember, other than him carrying a giant bowl of baba ganoush up the stairs, was how he enchanted the writers gathered there with stories all evening. How over the years this circle of writers grew, how incredibly generous he has been to us and our work. When he was attacked last year, and we had to stay in that wordless inertia of no news for many hours, I reached out to this community of writers that he has nourished and nurtured. Yes, seeds again.

There are legacies of words we leave behind that are not contained in clay pots or the pages of a book. And while there is something celebratory about the ultimate victory of the word in Victory City, the novel, with all its mythic qualities, seems to be urging us to turn away from this insistent need to connect the life to the work, to cut poems and stories free from their makers and allow them to float freely.

The author is a writer and dancer. Her most recent book is a collection of poems, A God at the Door.

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