Really Unreal: Salman Rushdie’s “Victory City”

Rushdie’s fifteenth novel casts doubt on the very production of historical knowledge.

T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) begins with an epigraph from Petronius’s Satyricon, a long, digressive, episodic Roman novel from the first century AD. In this excerpt, Trimalchio is boasting at one of his dinner parties, notorious for their vulgar excess, that he has met a prophet, albeit one “suspended in a bottle” and reduced to a freakshow for children. When the boys ask her, “Sibyl, what is your wish?” she answers, “I want to die.”

The Greek Sibyl or Sibylla, who lent her name to mythic Sibyls around the ancient world, was a poet-prophet, uttering her visions in hexameters. Salman Rushdie’s 15th novel, Victory City, a historical romp not unlike Satyricon, also chronicles an ancient woman, a seer, doer, and writer, for whom her great age in ampulla is a goddess-granted blessing and a curse. Pampa Kampana’s ambitions are “glory,” “to be seen,” and “to be king.” At the same time, hers is a hysteric’s desire, unslakable and as exhausting to trace as the cyclical rise and fall of empires through two hundred and forty-seven years. It is only when she finishes writing her epic Jayaparajaya that she is able to surrender to a long overdue shuffle off the mortal coil.

Victory City is “historiographic metafiction” of the kind Linda Hutcheon talks about, a historical novel which casts doubt on the very production of historical knowledge. The protagonists of historiographic metafiction, Hutcheon writes, are not proper types: “They are the ex-centrics, the marginalized, the peripheral figures of fictional history—the Coalhouse Walkers (in Ragtime), the Saleem Sinais (in Midnight’s Children), the Fevvers (in Nights at the Circus).” The twist Rushdie adds is that while his latest protagonist, Pampa Kampana, is indeed ex-centric, unlike Saleem Sinai she is not a peripheral character who accidentally turns out to be foundational. She shapes the political destiny and emergent national consciousness of her kingdom from the moment she breathes life into it.

Pampa Kampana’s tryst with destiny comes at the scene of her mother’s self-immolation alongside the other women of a vanquished kingdom in a traditional rite called Jauhar, intended to preserve the honor of wives from the marauding gangs their husbands died fighting. “She would not sacrifice her body merely to follow dead men into the afterworld. She would refuse to die young and live, instead, to be impossibly, defiantly old.” As if on cue, the nine-year-old girl starts ventriloquizing the divine counsel of the goddess Pampa, a phenomenon that will ensure that she is neither expendable (in relation to men) nor subject to the laws of human mortality.

But does Pampa Kampana live up to her goddess-imposed destiny? Her innovations in the domains of public art and joy are significant, albeit controversial. She secularizes erotic art, hitherto found in temple quarters only, transforming her world from a puritanical one into “a place of happiness and frequent and variegated sexual delight.” She raises her daughters to be better than men, more educated, physically trained, and mentally disciplined. She makes maps of space and time with her descendants, connecting here to there, “then … to now.” These are small victories. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as the narrator of The Waste Land says of the remnants of art, literature, and culture left intact in the wreckage of civilizations. Or, as Pampa Kampana’s voice speaks from the dead, “All that remains is this city of words.”

Rushdie’s metafictional historiography is distinctive in the way it not only looks at the writing of history as a starting point but also the scripts of literature, religion, myth, and fairy tale, which are posed as doubles of, and alternatives to, the discipline of history.

The history Victory City rewrites is that of the Vijayanagara Empire, the first South Indian state to have ruled and conferred cultural unity over three major linguistic regions, namely contemporary Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh. Vijayanagara (named after its capital, which translates to Victory City) was founded in 1336 by Harihara and Bukka, two of five sons of Sangama, from a cowherd community. The Sangama brothers had served in the administrations of Kakatiya and Kampili before these fell to the Delhi sultanate in the 1320s. The brothers were captured and taken to Delhi, where they converted to Islam. They returned to the Deccan as governors of the Sultanate, appointed to subdue revolts and invasions by neighboring Hindu kings. Once in Kampili, however, they reconverted to Hinduism under the influence of the sage Madhavacharya (also known as Vidyaranya) and declared independence from the Delhi sultanate. The brothers, Harihara and Bukka, gradually built a medieval Hindu empire of more than 140,000 square miles that reigned from coast to coast, from Nellore in the southeast to Badami in the west, gradually annexing nearly all South Indian dynasties as well as the Gajapati kingdom in Orissa. While the Vijayanagara Empire, which collapsed in 1646, exists in the popular imagination as a stronghold of Hinduism against Islamic invasion and bigotry, the rulers were tolerant of religious diversity and acquisitive of Islamicate dress, court customs and ceremonies, and architectural influences.1

History, Rushdie says in the opening page of the novel, tends to be ruined by “the passage of time, the imperfections of memory, and the falsehoods of those who came after.” He offers in its stead the narrative poem written by Pampa Kampana. Rushdie’s oeuvre is redolent of furies and female demigods unceremoniously erased from history: Sufiya Zenobia in Shame, rendered as “a rumour, a chimera, the collective fantasy of a stifled people”; the goddesses Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat in Satanic Verses, once believed to be the daughters of Allah, but eventually denounced as false idols. Pampa Kampana, hapless recipient of the celestial boon (“you will live just long enough to witness both your success and your failure, to see it all and tell its story”), is both of her time and ageless, undead for hundreds of years yet doomed to perpetuating her legacy like ordinary mortals by begetting children (who will all die before her). Her life, like the textual corpus of Jayaparajaya, is nothing but a long tale: “[S]he felt like a means to an end … an unbreakable container into which history was being shoveled.”

After an encounter with the Sangama brothers, Pampa Kampana seeds a miracle kingdom from a random assortment brought by the cowherd duo for growing okra, beans, and snake gourds. It is a magnificent cosmopolis replete with edifices, populated by newborn human beings, lush with vegetation, and swarming with urban animals. The victory city built from seeds and whispers—Vijayanagar—is renamed “Bisnaga” after Domingo Nunes, the Portuguese traveler Pampa takes an instant shine to, mispronounces it as such. Pampa overrules Bukka’s objection to this nonsense word with the implacable logic that it is not an ancient city with an ancient name. A chance sound posing as an originary word would do very well indeed for citizen-subjects with made-up genealogies. She sticks to “Bisnaga” while talking about the city and empire throughout her epic poem, “intending, perhaps, to remind us that 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.”

The voice in italics is that of the author who has uncovered Pampa’s poem, buried in a clay pot sealed with wax in the ruined Royal Enclosure of Vijayanagar. In her benediction, which is also a mixed blessing, the goddess Pampa had warned her namesake that not only would her life come to an end the second she finished telling her story, but the tale would also not be discovered—and Pampa Kampana reclaimed from cultural amnesia—for four hundred and fifty years. The author of Victory City is the interceptor, translator, and editor of this unread missive. He will trim the 24,000 verses and retell the story in “plainer language,” being neither a scholar nor a poet but “merely a spinner of yarns.”

If the translated verse—“Grandmaster Li Ye-He was our saviour, / rolling over the zenana like the thunder”—is not quite the “imperishable” poetry the modern author claims it is, he hastens to add that the failing is his. “I cannot come close to her poetic genius (I have not attempted to match her in metre or rhyme) but I offer it to suggest to the present reader the intrusion into the narrative of a moment belonging to a universe of marvels.” This is not the fabulist Scheherazade’s imperative, telling a tale to stave off the threat of death, or that of Niccolò Vespucci in The Enchantress of Florence, having to survive the web of intrigue his own bewitching narrative is in the process of generating. The author, despite his apparent shortcomings, strains to offer glimpses of “a universe of marvels” not of his making. The narrator of Victory City is a guardian of literature’s breachable borders between the ordinary and the fantastic.

In this reckoning, Bisnaga is a glorious experiment, albeit a failed one, in ruling city-states by magic, not faith.

Rushdie says that the character of Pampa Kampana “just showed up in my head.”2 He had also visited the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire in Hampi decades ago and was fascinated that the first kings of Vijayanagara claimed that they had descended from the moon. In his interview with David Remnick, Rushdie says: “It’s like saying, ‘I’ve descended from the same family as Achilles.’ Or Agamemnon. And so I thought, Well, if you could say that, I can say anything.”

Another inspiration was perhaps V. S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization, published in 1977 and opening with a lament for the fall of Vijayanagara, the “great centre of Hindu civilisation,” which was vanquished in 1565 by an alliance of Deccani sultanates. “It was committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it preserved and repeated.” Naipaul identifies this curatorial attitude—“it hardly innovated”—responsible for the Vijayanagara Empire’s eventual overthrow. The kingdom had obsolescence built into it: the ruins, he observes, look older than they are, “like the ruins of a long-superseded kingdom.”

Naipaul returned to Vijayanagara at several junctures in his travel writing, less ambivalent about the embattled kingdom each successive time. In 1997, in conversation with India Today, he stated that “every Indian should make the pilgrimage to the site of the Vijaynagar empire, just to see what the invasion of India led to. They will see a totally destroyed town. Religious wars are like that.”3 In 2004, Naipaul gave a pre-election endorsement to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

As William Dalrymple has argued, Naipaul’s increasingly jingoist stance on Vijayanagara and Hindu precarity has its roots in colonial discourse, and the work of British historians such as Robert Sewell whose book A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar (1900) inaugurated the stereotype of the Vijayanagara Empire as a pure and peaceful Hindu dominion, a “bulwark” against Muslim invasions.4

As historians have subsequently shown, the culture of Vijayanagara was far from navel-gazing or intolerant of cultural difference. Muslim subjects lived harmoniously in the city and state just as Hindu populations led peaceful lives in the kingdoms of the Deccan Sultanates. According to Philip Wagoner, the active cultural interchange between neighboring kingdoms saw the Hindu rulers replace Indic forms and practices with those drawn from a more globalized and universal Islamicate culture.

The morphology of Salman Rushdie’s Victory City predictably amplifies the inmixing, hybridization, and pragmatic syncretism of the historical Vijayanagara Empire. In this reckoning, Bisnaga is a glorious experiment, albeit a failed one, in ruling city-states by magic, not faith, and the resistance of the sheer zoological diversity of human life and desire to religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and remonstrance.

To repeat what Ursula K. Le Guin said about summarzing the plot of a Rushdie novel, “I shriek and fall back fainting on my seraglio couch. Rushdie has a fractal imagination: plot buds from plot, endlessly.” The novel is ostensibly about Pampa Kampana’s misadventures as she goes about fulfilling the divine command from goddess Parvati to stop immolations of women and promote their status in society. Rushdie’s “fractal imagination,” however, means that the life history of Pampa, queen in two successive reigns, is often difficult to trace through the arbitrary, kaleidoscopic, and never-ending patterns. Jokes, puns, aphorisms, and wordplay abound. A Twitterer pointed out that Rushdie had named the sons of Bukka Raya and Pampa Kampana—Erapalli, Bhagwat, and Gundappa—after renowned cricketers from Karnataka, namely Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat (B. S.) Chandrasekhar, and Gundappa Viswanath.

The Twitter user speculated that Haleya Kote (whose name literally means “old fort”), the drunkard friend of Bukka, was named after Old Fort rum. Rushdie gleefully waded in to add that Haleya Kote was also a reference to Sir John Oldcastle—later renamed “Falstaff” by Shakespeare—who was a drunkard too. In a sly reversal of contemporary (white-on-Black) racial misidentification, Pampa is made to say to the Portuguese Fernāo Paes, whom she has mistaken for Domingo Nunes, that “You really do all look alike.”

Like other Rushdie novels, Victory City is an echo chamber for the mythopoeic and literary canon. Pampa Kampana’s verse is meant to rival, or even better, the language of Ramayana. Following both major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the tale abounds with stories of exile, animated forests and talking woodland creatures, metamorphoses, and has as its central character a polyandrous woman like Mahabharata’s Draupadi. Pampa Kampana, describing her plight of having to orchestrate a mass movement sitting in a hole behind an almirah, says “I’m a witch behind a wardrobe.” Her eternal youth, like that of She in H. Rider Haggard’s eponymous novel, is a blessing and “a kind of damnation.” Pampa Kampana and Zerelda Li “whirling up into the air to attack their opponents from above” are redolent of scenes from martial arts films such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hukka and Bukka’s palace guards, a phalanx of “[t]all, muscular women soldiers who meant business,” are straight out of Marvel’s Black Panther.

Most of the reviews of Victory City have dwelled on the blinding of Pampa Kampana in a novel finished months before Salman Rushdie was blinded in one eye in the vicious attack on the author by Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old Lebanese man, at Chautauqua. For Rushdie’s staunch readers, this “haunting, uncanny, predictive power,” as Michael Gorra calls it in his New York Times review, does not come as a surprise.5 This is the cartographer of the city (visible but) unseen, the migrant ghettoes and slum interstices of unequal urban worlds; the swallower of lives and texts; the author who forewarned about the rise of ethnonationalism in the subcontinent and who wrote in Fury, published in August 2001, that “America insulted the rest of the planet … with the shoulder-shrugging casualness of the inequitably wealthy.” They have been handcuffed to history all this while—Saleem Sinai, Saladin Chamcha, Salman the scribe, Shalimar the Clown, Aurora Zogoiby, Pampa Kampana and so many other vital, unsettled characters of their time. Literature cannot market and monetize its preternatural prescience without ceasing to be itself: we enter the magic forest because here “the real was unreal.”

Therefore, I will take a page out of The Moor’s Last Sigh to revel in the “kingfisher brilliance” of Victory City, yawn through some of the wordplay and pointless proliferations of the plot and its ciphers and remember to “dance to the music without caring for the message in the song.” icon

  1. As Manu Pillai argues in Rebel Sultans: The Deccans from Khilji to Shivaji, “The first Rayas of Vijayanagar, in establishing a new kingdom, were not shielding Hinduism as taking advantage of a period of public commotion to establish a state of their own and further their own dynastic interests, for reasons less poetic than many would prefer to believe” (78).
  2. David Remnick, “The Defiance of Salman Rushdie,” New Yorker, 6 February 2023.
  3. V.S. Naipaul, “India shouldn’t have fantasies about the past, but face it,” India Today, 16 August 2022.
  4. William Dalrymple, “The Untold History of Hampi,” Open, 26 July 2018.
  5. Michael Gorra, “Salman Rushdie’s Miracle City,” New York Times, 1 February 2023.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. Featured image: Photo of Hampi Vittala Temple in Kallina Ratha, India. By Arian Zwegers. / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)