Books: Rushdie’s Return to Magical India
Salman Rushdie’s Victory City (Random House) is another fabulous novel set in his native land, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of his celebrated Midnight’s Children.
The title of Salman Rushdie’s 15th novel, inspired by an ancient kingdom named Vijayanagar (Victory City in English), has a deeper resonance today.
Ever since an Iranian cleric’s infamous fatwa made him a cause célèbre, Rushdie, an ardent defender of free speech, has used his voice to oppose tyranny and injustice. He gained his own freedom after a long, arduous battle. Then came the brutal attack last year, shocking the world, though the bigger story is that the 75-year-old author, despite being gravely injured, survived—and is recovering. As for the title’s second word, Rushdie has often praised cities for being pluralistic, tolerant, and cosmopolitan. In a Vanity Fair interview, he impishly noted that he’d come back as a city street or a city.
Few authors stay at the top of their game decade after decade. A good part of what makes Rushdie’s groundbreaking Midnight’s Children so absorbing is that he drew on his background and familiarity with the nation. Rushdie spent his childhood in Bombay, although his roots lie in Kashmir (Shalimar the Clown covers that territory).
For his new novel, Rushdie shifts the action to an older India, where Vijayanagar lasted from the early decades of the 14th century to the middle decades of the 15th century. Dubbed Bisnaga here, it’s the creation of a demigoddess, Pampa Kampana, whose life span of almost 250 years coincides with that of her kingdom. Shortly before she died, the reader learns as the novel opens, “the blind poet, miracle worker, and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative poem . . .” The novel, unfolding as a tale within a tale, is a loose prose translation of Kampana’s 24,000-verse epic, recovered from a sealed container that lay buried for centuries.
Rushdie relies more heavily on magic here than he did in Midnight’s Children, whose realism—pertaining especially to independent India’s early history—is an integral part of its appeal. But his extraordinary world-building ability remains undiminished, as does his comic sensibility and nifty wordplay. Kingdoms rise and fall, but as Kampana writes in her poem: “Words are the only victors.” The story endures. It kicks off in the 14th century when two kingdoms in southern India engage in a bloody war. In a tragic incident that traumatizes Kampana, the widows left behind, including her mother, commit ritual suicide.
Kampana, still a child, hides in a cave. The magic begins when Goddess Parvati (Kampana’s namesake) possesses her and grants her supernatural powers. Two cowherds passing by the cave become Kampana’s friends, and she tells them to scatter some magic seeds where her mother was cremated, thereby creating a city that embraces “poetry, liberty, women, and joy.”
Rushdie turns to this kingdom’s characters, and its chronicles, to make larger points about the uses and abuses of power, bigotry, sexism, inequality, even nationalism. And, of course, fanaticism
and free speech. The writing, however, is not heavy-handed, for he’s a master who never forgets that the main goal of a storyteller is to entertain rather than educate or pontificate.
Kampana doesn’t ascend the throne, unlike the cowherds Bukka and Hukka, who may initially seem like Laurel and Hardy but are hardly buffoons. While she marries them in succession, the real Boss of Bisnaga is Kampana, who breathes life into the residents and whispers their stories. Having witnessed horrors, she wants to use her divine gift to create a just, progressive society.
Alas, the good times don’t last, because humans can’t help being . . . human. “History is the consequence, not only of people’s actions, but also of their forgetfulness,” Kampana shrewdly points out. The decline is swift. Rushdie, in an eerie echo of Kampana’s fate, lost an eye and the use of a hand. This is not the first time he’s been prescient.
It’s true that magic realist novels written in a maximalist style don’t appeal to all readers. But that shouldn’t stop them from admiring Salman Rushdie for his great talent, inventiveness, moral commitment, energy, and—above all—courage and resilience. The narrator (Rushdie, no doubt) describes himself as “neither a scholar nor poet but merely a spinner of yarns.” What a spinner, though!
Murali Kamma, managing editor of Khabar, is an occasional contributor to New York Journal of Books (nyjournalofbooks.com), where this review also appears.
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