By Chaandreyi Mukherjee
In Imaginary Homelands Rushdie writes, “So it is clear that re-describing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it” and “the novel is one way of denying the official version of truth” (Imaginary 13). In Victory City, Rushdie, an expert in mythopoesis, transforms the glorious history of the medieval kingdom of Vijaynagara into a breathtaking and magical saga. He crafts this sprawling epic in four parts – Birth, Exile, Glory and Fall, under the garb of a recovered ancient Sanskrit text, recorded by the elusive and semi-immortal female narrator Pampa Kampana. Thus begins this magnificent tale:
On the last day of her life, when she was two hundred and forty-seven years old, the blind poet, miracle worker and prophetess Pampa Kampana completed her immense narrative poem about Bisnaga and buried it in a clay pot sealed with wax in the heart of the ruined Royal Enclosure, as a message to the future. Four and a half centuries later we found that pot and read for the first time the immortal masterpiece named the Jayaparajaya, meaning ‘Victory and Defeat’. (Rushdie 3)
It is this ‘we’ (unnamed archaeologists/archivists/literature enthusiasts/postmodernist historians) which further complicates the narratorial stance: “We knew only the ruins that remained, and our memory of its history was ruined as well, by the passage of time, the imperfection of memory, and the falsehoods of those who came after” (Rushdie 3). The ‘we’ simultaneously accepts and doubts the authenticity of Pampa Kampana’s words, believing in her merit to draft a work of such a grand stature, and yet sometimes subtly critiquing her for biases or voluntary omissions. Oblivion of the past centuries and distortion of collective memory take a backseat as readers get transformed into artists excavating memory and articulating enforced silences.
As a nine year old, Pampa Kampana loses her mother in a jauhar (mass immolation) after the defeat of their king and precisely at that moment the Goddess inhabits and speaks through her. In due course, she gifts a bagful of magical seeds to Hukka and Bukka and instructs them to plant those at the same spot of the immolation of the women. As the founders watch spellbound, the glorious city of Bisnaga/Vijay Nagar is conjured, as well as its citizens who loiter around vacantly, throwing tantrums, soiling clothes, as is the custom of newborns. The arrival of Pampa Kampana is the beginning of personal and collective memory; she whispers life in all its multifariousness into the soulless beings. In one of his interviews Rushdie claims, “the pleasure…in writing the novel was in “world building” and, at the same time, writing about a character building that world: “It’s me doing it, but it’s also her doing it.” The pleasure is infectious” (Remnick, “The Defiance”). Rushdie has been associated with literary works projecting nation building elements multiple times, attempting to subvert the idea of official history as irrefutable facts and data, and offer an alternative history (or mini histories) which often appears as the subjective manoeuvrings of a curious narrator, whimsically selecting and preserving events and experiences, and consolidating into an invaluably syncretic national culture.
Theodore Zeldin concludes that truth could hardly be located in archival research; it is found in “free history” which he identified as fiction. In direct opposition to modernist history’s “critical history” there is “historical imagination” or “imaginative creation” of Thomas Bender which vehemently denies the credibility of facts, sources and antiquated documents. This fictive nature of postmodernist history problematizes traditional source based history by deconstructing the nature of reality which was previously ascribed to the past. Himmelfarb writes, “Where once we were exhorted to be accurate and factual, we are now urged to be imaginative and inventive. Instead of recreating the past, we are told to create it; instead of reconstructing history, to construct or deconstruct it” (165). Reading Pampa Kampana’s ‘historical’ text is thus an entry into the dimensions of fiction and the illimitable power of the written word:
Her solution was fiction. She was making up their lives, their castes, their faiths…and sending the stories whispering through the streets into the ears that needed to hear them, writing the grand narrative of the city, creating its story now that she had created its life. Some of her stories came from her memories…but memory wasn’t enough, there were too many lives to enliven, and so imagination had to take over from the point at which memory failed. (Rushdie 32)
And this is cheekily followed by the author/narrator/translator’s footnote/reminder, almost as a cautionary declaration and the overwhelming appeal of literature:
…while her work is based on real events, there is an inevitable distance between the imagined world and the actual. ‘Bisnaga’ belongs not to history but to her. After all, a poem is not an essay or a news report. The reality of poetry and the imagination follows its own rules. We have elected to follow Pampa Kampana’s lead, so it is her dream-city of ‘Bisnaga’ that is so named and portrayed here. To do otherwise would be to betray the artist and her work. (Rushdie 34)
Rushdie states, “Literature can give the lie to official facts” (Imaginary 14). The subversive power of fiction dismantles the hitherto indestructible realm of official history and instead of spoon-feeding facts to readers, includes them as equal participants in the process of meaning formation. Blurring the dimensions of verifiable data/official recordkeeping and an epic poem, is the inclusion of actual historical personalities, not just Indian kings with their ancient kingdoms, but foreign visitors/explorers/traders – Domingo Paes, Fernao Nuniz etc., and their chronicles are also attributed by Rushdie in his acknowledgements. These foreigners resurface in Pampa Kampana’s tale as redheaded green eyed lovers in every century, till a 200-year-old, disgruntled Pampa remonstrates: “I’ve had enough of your reappearances.” Characters similar to previous ones, “no more than an echo of the past” (184) return to haunt the immensely long life of the narrator, almost hinting at the circular, inescapable loop of history, which inadvertently repeats itself – Jayaparajaya – victory and defeat follow the birth, rise and fall of every kingdom, not even a demigod can alter its course. As the epic ventures to its close and ancient dust (reminiscent of the end of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) covers the ruins of Bisnaga into centuries of anonymity, Pampa Kampana reinstates the irrefutable truth: “Words are the only victors” (338).
The dedication to Hanan (probably Hanan Al Shaykh, the renowned feminist Lebanese writer and activist) infuses the text with celebratory depictions of womanhood and feminism. Pampa Kampana’s vision envisages Bisnaga as the land of equal opportunities for men and women. Thus, there are courageous women soldiers, brilliant poets, scribes, teachers, administrators, artisans, sculptors, craftswomen and queen regents. There are also kind, empathetic men, allies and confidants of the strong women.
Rushdie’s narrative seduces and beguiles as it traces dynasties of kings and their reigns full of intrigue and passion, conversing animals, magical metamorphoses, charming forest goddesses and an enigmatic and supremely alluring storyteller. A note has been provided to the readers about the deliberate simplicity of the language, to dilute the complexities of the original text. It is an unimaginable feat to accommodate the entire history of a kingdom into a three hundred page book; it seems fiction manifests brevity, comprehension, tolerance, equality and an unforgettable immortality.
Himmelfarb, G. New History and the Old. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1987. Pdf. Web. 2 June 2016.
Remnick, David. “The Defiance of Salman Rushdie.” The New Yorker. 6 February 2023. Web. 10 April 2023.
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. London: Granta Books, 1991. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Victory City. Gurugram: Penguin Random House India, 2023. Print.
Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee is Assistant Professor of English at Vivekananda College, University of Delhi.
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