Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Salman Rushdie, “Victory City”

Did I understand Salman Rushdie’s new novel Victory City?
I knew nothing of the real city it is based on, not even the name.
But this magical novel has a life of its own, independent of real history.

Pampa Kampana was a sorceress. A goddess spoke through her and she could do many magical miracles. For example she founded an entire city by sowing seeds that grew and became its inhabitants. She gave these vegetal people a collection of human memories so vivid that they believed that they had an actual past, and eventually forgot her role in their origin. The setting of her life is a semi-mythic, semi-real city in India; while Rushdie’s novel seems to reflect real history, I knew nothing of it at all but found the book readable anyway. The novel is presented as an adaptation of Pampa Kampana’s own epic poem encompassing her many adventures in her long life.

According to her narrative, Pampa Kampana lived nearly 250 years, for the entire existence of the city, and become its de facto ruler several times. She married Hukka, the first king of the country, and bore him 3 daughters, and then married his brother Bukka, the second king, and bore him 3 sons. She also had affairs, especially with a Portuguese horse-seller who was traveling around the area. She was a sensuous woman, and loved men; she was also fond of good things to eat, for example, visiting “her favorite fruit stall in the grand bazaar tasting the first perfect mango of the season, an Alphonso from Goa.” (p. 221)

For many long years, Pampa Kampana never aged, but looked eternally young, disconcertingly younger than her children, grandchildren, and more generations. She remained a big political influence during the reign of several kings, and insisted on the rights and the role of women in civic life — unlike in a conventional Indian state. When her influence waned, she escaped to a magical forest. On a few special occasions she could turn herself and companions into birds or, more exactly into supernatural creatures called apsaras; in this form they could flee from their enemies or go long distances to where they needed to be.

Apsaras such as this one are “celestial nymphs” or shape-shifters.
(Coincidentally, I saw this one in a museum two weeks ago!)

Pampa Kampana’s history is related in a vivid, myth-like narrative. Salman Rushdie can be captivating or horrifying with a variety of cruel things that happen to Pampa Kampana and her family, and with the portrayal of rulers who become corrupt or power-drunk. His imagination can be exotic as with the story of a forest inhabited by rival green, brown, and pink monkeys, or can be traditional, invoking many Hindu gods, goddesses, and other supernatural creatures.

Pampa Kampana is a practical leader, and her followers trust her. For example, when arriving in the forest, she made sure that she and her companions wouldn’t starve:

“As to their first meal, Pampa Kampana tells us that it was the forest itself that provided for them. A shower of nuts fell around them from above, and banana trees like those in the forest of Hanuman gave up their plenty. There were fruits they had never seen before hanging from unknown trees, and bushes of berries so delicious that they made one weep. They found a fast-flowing stream of cold sweet water close by and by its banks grew anne soppu, which was water spinach, and Indian pennywort, which could be used medicinally, to ease their anxiety, and even improve their memory. They found air potatoes and clove beans, black licorice–flavored sunberries and wild red okra and delicious ash gourds.” (p. 124)

In her 247 years, beginning when she was 9 years old with the death of her mother in a mass suicide of widowed women, Pampa Kampana experienced such a wide variety of experience that it’s a wild and exciting novel to read. I checked on the non-fiction background and learned:

“All of this is true, sort of. Oh, not Pampa Kampana and her seeds, but that mass suicide did happen, in the early 14th century. Hukka and Bukka were real, and so was the city they founded, whose name Salman Rushdie has taken as the title of his 16th novel, ‘Victory City.’ That’s English for Vijayanagar, the capital of the empire that dominated the region for, well, Pampa’s life span is just about right, until a decisive military defeat in 1565. Vijayanagar’s ruins are now called Hampi, its temples are a UNESCO world heritage site, and its architectural remains stretch across the subcontinent’s south, right down to its fingertip point. The empire’s vast armies, its reliance on war elephants and its long quarrel with the Muslim sultanates to the north — all of that is real too, and there were even several Portuguese wanderers, who left records of their travels.” (New York Times Review)

I’ve read quite a few other novels by Salman Rushdie, and I wouldn’t say this is my favorite, but it’s readable and challenging and has lots of interesting descriptions. If I were not so ignorant of the history of India, I might like it better, but unfortunately, I have never read anything else about the pre-British experience of this intriguing subcontinent. I’m challenging myself to go back and reread Midnight’s Children!

Blog post © 2023 mae sander



Helen's Book Blog said...

This definitely sounds like a challenging read. I've never read anything by Rushdie, I am intimidated at the thought.

eileeninmd said...


It does sounds like a challenge, thanks for another great review.
Have a great day!

anno said...

I love hearing from people who have read Rushdie's work - the summaries of his novels always sound so interesting, so rich in historical and mythological detail -- so thank you for this review... and for making the connection with the artwork you recently shared. That's a gorgeous sculpture!

Rushdie can definitely be a challenge to read. Midnight's Children, though? Maybe that would be a good place to start. Thanks for the recommendation!

thecuecard said...

I've heard Midnight's Children is a very challenging read. I've not tried it. The new Rushdie sounds like a doozy. Alas I'm ignorant as well of the early history of India, but I'm glad Rushdie is back!

Rainbow Evening said...

I read Salman Rushdie .... one of great authors.

Thank you for sharing of your well written review of the book.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I read Midnight's Children just before I went to hear Salman Rushdie speak in 2010 in Houston. He was tightly guarded then, and no photos were allowed. But I came away feeling quite exuberant: https://readerbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/12/sunday-salon-salman-rushdie.html

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I read Midnight's Children just before attending a Salman Rushdie event in 2010 in Houston. I left the event feeling quite exuberant: https://readerbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/12/sunday-salon-salman-rushdie.html

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

One more time? I don't know why I'm not able to leave a comment.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

I've never heard of Rushdie, but I thought this was a fascinating read, I like how he wove mythology and fact into the storyline.