In the beginning was the fire, and the river flowed knowingly, carrying its secrets for the future. Holding on to her mother’s hand, a nine-year-old girl, Pampa Kampana, a name she shared with the sacred river, watched the widows walking towards the fire, giving in. In the end, her mother too followed the other women, and the girl took a vow to defy death. The river blessed her, and in that moment of annihilation and divinity, she began her journey, which would span more than two centuries, as a temptress of creation, and in her imagination would be born an empireoffiction, for, shealoneknewthatstoriesshewhisperedtoapeopletrapped in unreality would redeem them. In the empire that grew out of the magic seeds of her prophecy, she would become the biographer of lives blessed and cursed. Salman Rushdie has placed her in that twilight zone between history and mythology, as a reassertion of imagination.
It’s Pampa Kampana’s epic memoir, ‘Jayaparajaya’ (victory and defeat), written in Sanskrit, that is being retold four-and-a-half centuries later by the narrator of Victory City, Rushdie’s new novel. As creator and chronicler of an empire the scale of whose glory was only matched by the follies that underlined its fall, she lives multiple lives: as lover, queen, mother, enchantress and exile. And in each role, she tells a story larger than the collective lives of those who inhabit her world, a moral fable that resonates far beyond the instant drama of power and its pathologies, of faith and its political ambition, of sexual justice and passion’s transgressions. In the end, the storyteller becomes the only story that outlives the world that owes its emotional content to her imagination.
Pampa Kampana endures because she herself is born in the imagination of Rushdie, who has otherwise returned to the Vijayanagaram empire, victory city in English, to give his fairy queen a historical space to play out her script of romance and redemption, all the while defying biology, living to the age of 247, in undiminished youth: “The story of a life has a beginning, a middle and an end. But if the middle is unnaturally prolonged then the story is no longer a pleasure. It’s a curse.” Her self-portrait could be a near-perfect description of the victory city, Bisnaga in the novel, enriched by fiction (“fictions could be as powerful as histories”), undone by reality. Her evolution, from prophet to outcast, allows Rushdie, who is used to travelling back in time to tell the story of the present, to build on the ruins of the historical city a fable of the now.
India is an intimate exhilaration and an enduring hurt, and in victory city, Rushdie makes the return journey on the magic carpet of memory. The history of Vijayanagaram presents him a prism to clarify the present
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The Bisnaga dynasty that began with the Sangama brothers Hukka, the first king, and his successor Bukka, both served by Pampa as queen, will follow the trajectory of a magical kingdom in permanent power struggle. It is Pampa, a reckless lover who takes her romance beyond the palace walls, who, as a dissident within, brings the idealism of a feminist and a social equaliser to governance, and her interventions make everything larger than their historical size. She is freedom’s fiercest apostle, even in the matter of her own sexuality. As kings wither away or succumb to the delirium of power, in the city guarded by women warriors, she, exuding the strength and sacredness of the feminine, remains the lonely conscience-keeper, and eventually a prisoner of conscience. Prophets fall when prophecies come to haunt them.
When religion separates the sacred from the sensuous, “Bisnaga’s beloved Twice-Queen” plays the champion of the erotic in everyday life. Defying the priesthood of morality, she brings the portraits of pleasure to the public space, setting off the democratisation of desire, for the idea of progress must be freed from the clutches of spiritual guardians. “A mighty empire such as ours is precisely the entity that should set out to lead the people towards the future. Let it be the fourteenth century everywhere else. It’s going to be the fifteenth century here,” she insists.
Pampa Kampana carries the burden of the creator. Lives shaped by her whispers are not perfect, and it is that realisation that adds to her conviction as a reformer and rebel. When a succession struggle intensifies, she disowns her own sons for the sake of gender justice. Still, she won’t disown the spirit of “free will”. She “learned the lesson every creator must learn, even God himself. Once you had created your characters, you had to be bound by their choices. You were no longer free to remake them according to your own desires. They were what they were and they would do what they would do.” And what they do make her an exile:
Where shall we go, our Mother, Away from those who mean us harm? My darlings, my beloveds, my dears, Let us go to the Enchanted Forests As they did in the ancient stories And be safe.
Exile is stillness of time, and for someone who has magical powers over it, banishment in the enchanted forest is just a pause in the journey, and it is all about regaining the future. If ‘Jayaparajaya’ is the Ramayana reimagined by a woman who has full ownership over her destiny, Pampa Kampana
is Sita who crosses every line drawn by kings and lovers for freedom and justice. Her moral system is constantly challenged, even in the enchanted forest where she gathers news from the magic-less Bisnaga through crows and parrots. Magic has migrated to the forest, and it is where she gets the intimations of a horrifying future. They come in the form of pink monkeys:
O the Monkeys are a-coming they are as pink as wagging tongues, And they’re not like any monkeys in any song we’ve ever sung Not lithe or sweet or hairy, and as big as any man, O the monkeys mean to harm us, And to rule us if they can.
Future defeats can’t be averted by present magic, and solace is provided by the knowledge that “maybe this is what human history was: the brief illusion of happy victories set in a long continuum of bitter, disillusioning defeats.” Magic can make the present bearable, and it can certainly make a love story an adventure in metamorphosis. After her daughter flies away as a bird to freedom, away from the cruel king, Pampa Kampana consoles herself as a mother who will be spared the agony ofwatching her “daughter growing old and die.” The mother knows that “this eternal youth is a kind of damnation. This power to affect the thoughts of others and to alter history is another curse. The witchcraft, the sorcery of magic seeds and metamorphosis, whose limits even I do not know, is a third. I am a ghost in a body that refuses to grow.”
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Exile is a trial of love and loss, and Pampa Kampana is still seeking answers in a land without justice. When she meets the goddess of the forest, they realise they have been waiting for this moment, and there is a sense of urgency in their assessment of the moment. The goddess says: “Our hour is over, and it’s your time now. So even if you—or the goddess coming out of you—and I together manage to win this battle, after that neither animals nor humans can count on us to protect or guide or help. The victory may be real, but also temporary. You should understand that.” Pampa Kampana replies:
“Forever is a meaningless word. Now is my only concern.”
In each role, Pampa Kampana tells a story larger than the collective lives of those who inhabit her world, a moral fable that resonates far beyond the instant drama of power and its pathologies, of faith and its political ambition, of sexual justice and passion’s transgressions. In the end, the storyteller becomes the only story that outlives the world that owes its emotional content to her imagination
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It takes another act of metamorphosis for her to regain ‘now’, to deploy the magic to protect the empire in its golden era, to play the romantic one last time. She may fortify the city by sowing enchanted seeds, the soaring seven circles of walls the creator’s last gift to her people. Miracle shall save the city, but it won’t free her from melancholy. It won’t save Bisnaga from the madness of those who were empowered by her magic. Jaya must rhyme with parajaya. As the sun sets on the empire, the mother of magic is steeped in sadness, and she needs no monument other than her stories. She has written her own immortality.
Victory City is a fairy tale of the present accentuated by history and mythology, written by a storyteller schooled in the epic fabulism of the East. It is Rushdie’s homecoming, his first full-fledged Indian novel after Midnight’s Children and Shalimar the Clown, still arguing with the inheritance of love and despair. In an enchanted passage of fiction stretching from the first cry of Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children to the last word of Pampa Kampana in Victory City, magic enhances realism . Still, India is an intimate exhilaration and an enduring hurt, and in Victory City, he makes the return journey on the magic carpet of memory. The history of Vijayanagaram presents him a prism to clarify the present. Words alone provide an alternative to the temptations of power, temporal or spiritual. History in a historical novel, as Milan Kundera wrote, is about “being in the world”. In Victory City, the urgency of the past overwhelms the present.
And it’s history that frightens keepers of the faith. In The Satanic Verses, the Imam who proclaims a revolution sees history as the “blood wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies.” The scribbler Salman in the novel takes liberty with the received Word. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the enemy of imagination is called Khattam Shud, signifying the finite, who presided over the Kingdom of Chup (Silence). The struggle has been always about retaining the story in a world that is consistently offended by imagination. The novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights owes its title to Scheherazade, who embodies the life-extending powers of storytelling. It’s the blasphemies of Pampa Kampana that frighten the spiritual lord of Bisnaga.
“Fictions could be as powerful as histories, revealing the new people to themselves, allowing them to understand their own natures and the natures of those around them, and making them real. This was the paradox of the whispered stories: they were no more than make-believe but they created the truth, and brought into being a city and an army with all the rich diversity of non-fictional people with deep roots in the actually existing world.”
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Rushdie knows what it is like to be an offender and exile. The wonder tales offer him an alternative: enchanted passages to the history of the present. As he writes, “the wonder tales tell us truths about ourselves that are often unpalatable; it exposes bigotry, explores the libido, brings our deepest fears to light.” They lead him to the memoirs of Pampa Kampana, fiction’s longest-lived enchantress.
Victory City is written by a novelist who barely survived a knife attack on a public stage days after he read the book’s galley proofs. He bears the scars, a reminder that storytelling is a dangerous art. Silence seekers are still lurking in the crowd. No writer likes his text to be coloured by the context, but it is as if Rushdie can’t escape the intrusion of terrifying headlines into the appreciation of his post-fatwa works. In Pampa Kampana’s farewell verse, we get the reassurance that what really matters is indestructible: the imperium of words.