The Curmudgeon: Salman Rushdie Creates An Unruly Kingdom

Books Features Salman Rushdie
The Curmudgeon: Salman Rushdie Creates An Unruly Kingdom

Pampa Kampana, the main character in Salman Rushdie’s new book, Victory City, creates an entire kingdom in the southern half of what is now India. When she is orphaned at age nine, after her mother has thrown herself onto a funeral pyre in the book’s dramatic opening, she is possessed by the goddess Parvati. Nine years later, she discovers that she has the power to use seeds of grain to grow an entire city and fill it with soldiers, bakers, poets, and more.

Of course, Rushdie is doing the same thing as his heroine: he’s creating a society with tens of thousands of citizens from something as negligible as a bag of seeds: his imagination. And like his protagonist, he does a very good job of it—conjuring up a whole world that’s thoroughly believable, from its Hindu architecture and stories to its quarreling factions and bloodthirsty armies, from its randy libertines to its religious ascetics, from its towering walls to its nearby dense jungles.

 Pampa Kampana names her grown-overnight metropolis Vijayanagar or Victory City. Its citizens, though, soon slur the word into Bisnaga. It won’t be the last time the creator’s intentions are twisted into something else. There really was a Hindustan empire named Vijayanagar that ruled much of the region from roughly 1318 to 1565, the 247 years of the entirely fictional Pampa Kampana’s lifespan. That life is elongated by Parvati’s magic, for Victory City the book is a fable, not a history.

 Both Rushdie and Pampa Kampana try to nudge their invented societies in an enlightened direction, encouraging their creations to embrace religious tolerance, gender equality, and artistic freedom. Both creators are disappointed. It turns out you can’t make your invented world realistic and utopian at the same time. As much as these two writers long for a better society, their first loyalty is to reality and to the flexibility of language, even if that makes them enemies of the world’s utopians.

Rushdie has famously been the enemy of Islamic utopians. In early 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death, after the author had depicted Mohammed as a complex human being in the 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Between finishing Victory City and seeing it published, Rushdie was nearly killed when a fatwa-inspired young man stabbed him repeatedly in the face, neck, and abdomen last August on a stage in Chautauqua, New York.

 More recently, Rushdie earned the ire of left-wing utopians when he condemned the campaign of neutralizing the language in Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books to make them more politically correct. Whether writing about Mohammed, Dahl or Pampa Kampana, Rushdie has insisted on the right to portray them as flawed, complicated, admirable, flesh-and-blood beings rather than plaster saints or demons.

Pampa Kampana runs into similar problems. After sowing her magic seeds to grow the city of Bisnaga, she whispers personalities and histories—with her own progressive sympathies—into the blank-slate humans who have sprung up from the same seeds. It works. But a generation later, the citizens have developed their own needs and want, and they disregard her further instructions.

Early in the book, Rushdie describes how Pampa Kampana supplied inner lives to the thousands of people she had raised from seeds in the desert sand. While she’s in the middle of that whispering campaign, the empire’s new crown prince brings a Portuguese trader to observe. Even as Pampa Kampana is making her world more defined and believable, Rushdie is doing the same with his. 

“It was a small room, unlike any other room in the palace,” Rushdie writes, “not in the least ornate, with plain whitewashed walls, and unfurnished except for a bare wooden plinth. A small high window allowed a single ray of sunlight to descend at a steep angle toward the young woman below, like a shaft of angelic grace. In this austere setting, struck by that thunderbolt of startling light, sitting cross-legged, with her eyes closed, he arms outstretched and resting on her knees, her hands with the thumbs and index fingers joined at their tips, her lips slightly parted, there she was: Pampa Kampana, lost in the ecstasy of the act of creation.

“She was silent, but it seemed to Domingo Nunes, as he was ushered into her presence by Bukka Sangama, that a throng of whispered words were flowing from her, from her parted lips, down her chin and neck, along her arms and out across the floor, escaping from her as a river escapes from its source, and heading out into the world.”

 The act of creation has its moments of ecstasy, Rushdie accurately reports, but it also has its moments of frustration. Sometimes you want the words to come, and they stubbornly refuse. Sometimes you want your characters to act a certain way, and they refuse. If you’ve done a good job of creating them—if you’ve raised them like independent children—they will have their own desires, their own agendas, and will resist yours. 

When Bisnaga first emerges into existence, its creator declines an invitation to become the first head of state but agrees to serve as queen to the first two kings. When the second dies, Pampa Kampana’s one-time mentor, Vidyasagar, now a power-hungry religious zealot, turns on her. He imprisons her and threatens to execute her. Only by means of a daring escape can she flee for her life.

Hiding out in a magic jungle with her three daughters and two bodyguards, Pampa Kampana tries to restore Bisnaga to its original character by launching a new whispering campaign in the citizens’ subconscious minds. It doesn’t work.

“She would have to persuade many of them,” Rushdie writes, “that the cultured, inclusive, sophisticated narrative of Bisnaga that she was offering was better than the narrow, exclusionary, and, to her way of thinking, barbarian official narrative of the moment. It was by no means certain that the people would choose sophistication over barbarianism. The party line regarding members of other faiths—we are good, they are bad—had a certain infectious clarity.”

 As the god-like creator of Pampa Kampana as well as Bisnaga, Rushdie could have made her irresistibly persuasive. But that would have been magical realism without the realism. That would have turned the novel’s characters into marionettes dangling from the strings manipulated by the Booker Prize-winning novelist, flattening the characters and dulling the story. He chose instead to make his characters as varied and complicated as actual people. 

Such a choice may frustrate some readers, but it results in a much richer book, one that wrestles with the truth that human beings obstinately refuse to do what we think they should do. They drink too much, sleep with the wrong partners, pursue greed into cruelty, and abandon rationality in favor of religious or political fervor. Bad writing wishes this paradox away. Good writing faces up to it, and this is very good writing indeed.

Victory City may, in fact, be Rushdie’s best book. It will require a decade of distance to be sure, but it throbs with his love of language, of ideas, of humor, and of romance. It strikes a balance between magic and realism that few writers other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez have managed. Magical things happen—women turn into birds and back again, walls rise from the desert at the right incantation; female warriors run up walls like Hong Kong movie stars—but human behavior remains exasperatingly realistic.

 Just as the imagined town of Macondo in Marquez’s signature work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, became a microcosm for all of South American culture and history, the imagined town of Bisnaga does the same for South Asia. Both regions have suffered from European colonialism and homegrown despotism; both boast intoxicating cuisines and storytelling, and both have stumbled into the 21st century with unfulfilled potential.

Pampa Kampana lives long enough to become queen to one brother and queen to the other, before becoming an exile. She returns, looking younger than her grandchildren, to become queen again, and finally, a blind old woman hearing the final destruction of her city. Perhaps you have to live 250 years, Rushdie implies, to really understand history. 

Rushdie was born in 1947, less than two months before the partition that divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan with violent, tragic results. Rushdie was born into a Westernized Muslim family in Bombay (now Mumbai), as was Saleem Sinai, the central character in his breakthrough novel, 1981’s Midnight’s Children.

Saleem was born on August 15 at midnight, the moment when England relinquished power to India and Pakistan—and like all the other children born between midnight and 1 a.m. that night, according to the novel’s narrator, he had telepathic powers that made it easier to tell the story of the cataclysmic years that followed. Rushdie’s next novel, 1983’s Shame, set in Quetta, Pakistan, pursued the same themes from the other side of the border. 

Many of Rushdie’s novels chronicle his subcontinent’s recent history from the perspective of a secular Muslim who believes there are many ways—religious and otherwise—to understand the universe, and all should be respected. A major figure in 2008’s The Enchantress of Florence is Akbar the Great, a fictionalized version of the real-life 16th-century Mughal (Muslim) emperor who tried to invent a religion that would incorporate all others. Victory City though, is the first to explore his homeland from a Hindu perspective.

The literary conceit of Victory City is that Pampa Kampana not only created Bisnaga but also documented its lifespan in an epic poem of 24,000 verses, of the same length and in the same style as the Ramayana, the Hindu sacred text written over roughly the same time period as the Old Testament. Rushdie provides only small snippets from his imaginary epic; Victory City is sort of a novelization of the poem, but he makes the most of Hindu literature, its hundreds of gods and kings, and its musical, polysyllabic names. 

In the years following the double-barreled triumph of Midnight’s Children and Shame, Rushdie has had more success telling stories set before the 20th century than those set in or after that century. Novels such as The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Fury (2001), Shalimar the Clown (2005), The Golden House (2017), and Quichotte (2019), all set during the author’s adulthood years, are bravura displays of Rushdie’s hyperactive intelligence and linguistic agility.

 But those five books are often weakened by the writer’s own cleverness. When writing about the culture he’s swimming in, Rushdie can’t resist the temptation to invent puns, crack jokes and pass judgment on the politicians, songs, and products of modern life. These observations are often witty, but they distract from the emotional momentum of the story.

He’s better off when he sets his stories in a past he has never witnessed, a past where he doesn’t feel compelled to comment on the transient trends of the day, a past where he can focus his energies on recreating a vanished world and populating it with human problems that never vanish because they never change. Books such as The Satanic Verses, The Enchantress of Florence, and now Victory City fall into this category and rank as his best works since Midnight’s Children and Shame

But in whatever era he’s writing about, Rushdie reminds us of the nascent cancer in every religious and political movement, left or right. It’s not enough for these Puritans—these Inquisitors and Stalinists—to police other people’s behavior; thoughts must also be controlled. To do that, one must purify language, as Vidyasagar tries to do in Victory City

“He wanted to change the names of all the streets,” Rushdie writes, “to get rid of the old names that everyone knows and replace them with the long titles of various obscure saints, so now nobody is sure where anything is anymore, and even long-time residents of the city are obliged to scratch their heads when trying to find an address.”

Rushdie has always resisted the narrowing of permissible subjects and permissible vocabulary. He has championed the proliferation of stories and metaphors. He has greatly broadened English-language literature beyond its Euro-American boundaries, beyond its stolid realism, and beyond its well-worn tropes. He has demonstrated how the imagination can create whole worlds that tell us more about ourselves than the one that has blinded us with familiarity. And Victory City is the best possible showcase for all of that.

Victory City is available now wherever books are sold.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin