Spectator by Seema Goswami: An eye on the future
“If I can’t burn you,” he told her, “I can certainly burn your book, which I don’t need to read to know that it’s full of unsuitable and forbidden thoughts, and then you will die and be forgotten, and nobody will know your name…What do you say to that?” That is the threat delivered to Pampa Kampana, the semi-magical, demi-goddess heroine of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Victory City
“If I can’t burn you,” he told her, “I can certainly burn your book, which I don’t need to read to know that it’s full of unsuitable and forbidden thoughts, and then you will die and be forgotten, and nobody will know your name…What do you say to that?”
That is the threat delivered to Pampa Kampana, the semi-magical, demi-goddess heroine of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Victory City. But it is hard not to see the author himself as the recipient, given what we know of his personal history. Subject to a kill order by the fanatical Ayatollah-led regime of Iran, Rushdie spent decades in hiding, while his book, The Satanic Verses, was burnt in the streets across the world by people who had never read as much as single chapter (or even a single word).
But Rushdie did not die. He lived to tell several other tales. He lived to love (and marry) several other women. He lived to emerge from hiding and appear at literary events, where he was celebrated as a literary demi-God himself.
And then, came that fateful morning in August last year, when he went on stage at Chautauqua (New York) and was attacked by a fanatical young man who stabbed him 15 times in a mad frenzy. Remarkably, Rushdie survived the attack, though he lost the use of one hand and sight in one eye as a consequence.
The manuscript of Victory City was delivered before this attack happened. But it is in keeping with the magic realism that powered Rushdie’s literary career, that his loss of eyesight (in one eye) is mirrored in the attack on his heroine, Pampa Kampana, who ends up being blinded in both. Does the author have a sideline in prophecy? Did he have a presentiment of what was coming round the corner? Or was this just the mother of coincidences, the kind that no writer would have the guts to magic up? I guess we will never know.
The parallels with the author’s own life aside, Victory City marks a return to form for Rushdie, whose last few novels were less that well-received. Loosely based on the rise and fall of the real-life kingdom of Vijaynagar (Bisnaga in the book) in South India, it tells the story of how dynasties are created and destroyed, how magic has its own limitations, how religious tolerance is an ideal that many aspire to but few achieve, and how women struggle to make their place in a world ruled by patriarchy.
It is possible to read this book as a sort of feminist fable. It is a woman, Pampa Kampana, who is possessed by a goddess and creates a whole kingdom through magic, whispering entire histories into the ears of its population. She lives for 247 years and marries three kings, and remains in power for almost as long as she lives in exile. But in the end, the patriarchal world has its revenge on her, leaving her blind and broken, and longing for death to release her from this mortal coil.
As she writes in the history of Bisnaga she leaves behind: “I myself am nothing now. All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors.”
One suspects, that in writing that, Rushdie was writing his own epitaph. Though, God willing, he won’t need that for a long while yet.
From HT Brunch, February 25, 2023
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