It is impossible to talk about Salman Rushdie’s Victory City without prefacing it with a reference to the horrific attack on the writer in August 2022. Religious bigotry translates all too easily into violence, it showed us, making witnesses of us all. With this new novel, Rushdie confronts the inevitability of history as much as he asserts his triumph over extremist opinion and the dangers of ignorance.

A biting socio-political critique

Introducing his story as a retelling of the saga of the rise and decline of the Vijaynagar empire in 14th-century India, by a spinner of yarns “who offers this version for the simple entertainment and possible edification of today’s readers, the old and the young, the educated and the not so educated, those in search of wisdom and those amused by folly, northerners and southerners, followers of different gods and of no gods, the broad-minded and the narrow-minded, men and women and members of the genders beyond and in between, scions of the nobility and rank commoners, good people and rogues, charlatans and foreigners, humble sages and egotistical fools,” Rushdie sets forth his agenda. True to this promise (and perhaps collapsing the already thin line between the narratorial and authorial voices), he gives us an epic that tells a fabulous story and tells it fabulously well, but also layers it with biting socio-political critique, and, most importantly, lays bare the dangers of re-writing history, of erasures, and of pervasive bigotry, especially when sponsored by the state.

Rushdie’s heroine Pampa Kampana is a poet, a prophetess and has been touched by magic. Having lost her mother to an act of war, Pampa is orphaned at the young age of nine. Her namesake, the goddess Pampa, known in other places and other traditions, as Parvati, bestows on the child the curious blessings of prophecy, magic, and near-agelessness, also making her the custodian of a better future for women, a future in which women would not be forced to die on the funeral pyres of their husbands, a future in which their lives would not be defined by men.

Pampa Kampana’s magnum opus is the Jayaparajaya, an epic of 24,000 verses in Sanskrit, telling of the Bisnaga Empire – the Mother who seeded it, the men who founded it, the Kings and Queens and warriors and zealots and strategists who breathed life into it and subsequently, brought about its downfall. The canvas is vintage Rushdie. The author captures a moment in history, brings to it rich brushstrokes of mythology and folklore and magic, and creates his own mythos of a world that might be a reconstruction of the 14th-century, but is also a destabilising mirror of our own.

Harihara (or Hakka I) and Bukka, the founders of the Vijaynagar Empire appear as Hukka and Bukka in Rushdie’s Bisnaga. Keen on establishing their absolute right as rulers, the brothers claim descent from the Lunar Lineage, making up on the fly a story about the great Moon God and generations of male progeny, locating themselves in the same line as Lord Krishna and the great warrior, Arjuna. Dynastic histories are often dynamic fiction, Rushdie seems to say, posing the first of many questions the text raises about truth and truth-telling in the accounts we have come to accept as sanctified, unquestionable history.

When Hukka Raya the Second, the third king of the Sangama dynasty, proclaims in his coronation speech that they would re-write history to write out “the witch” and her “witch-daughters,” and that “Henceforth our narrative, and our narrative only, will prevail, for it is the only true narrative. All false narratives will be suppressed,” what he gives words to is patriarchy’s fear of powerful women and its age-old strategy of deeming them witches, even as he shines a light, all the way across centuries, on an unfortunately too-familiar 21st-century emphasis on re-writing histories, writing out dissenters, laying charges of villainy and worse against them. In Bisnaga as in the reader’s own time and place, dissent is unpatriotic, and “history” is often a fabulist’s confection.

Can Utopia exist?

The rise of the Vijayanagar empire was coterminous with the emergence and consolidation of several Islamic kingdoms and empires in the north as well as south of India. It was also a period familiar with foreign traders and travellers – the text makes mention of the Portuguese Domingo Nunes and Fernão Paes, and the Italian Niccolò de’ Vieri, all of whom play interesting roles in Pampa Kampana’s story. Bisnaga’s world is therefore one where multiple religious and ethnic identities already existed. Hukka and Bukka, while waiting for their nascent kingdom to take shape, consider the possibility of men of their own as well as “the other” religion being part of their citizenry and army but decide that the issue is of no consequence.

Bisnaga is imagined as an ideal state, but as in all Utopias, perfection is unstable and bigotry inevitably seeps into its character. The close kinship between religion and power is often in the foreground of the story, as is the fear of “the alien-faith.” Interestingly enough, even as Rushdie critiques extremist theocracies- both Bisnaga and its mirror, Zafarabad, the city of victory – seeing in them the absolute annihilation of art and culture, liberal values and rights of the citizenry, he never once names the religions, implying, subversively, that all religions lend themselves to extremism, and all have the potential for intolerance and bigotry built into the structures their practitioners have brought into being.

The most delightful part of Victory City, however, is its gender politics. The Bisnaga that Pampa Kampana brings to life is one where women are not restricted to conventional gender roles. They are poets and workers, musicians and dancers, advocates and clerks, scribes and healers, warriors and protectors.

As Queen, Pampa Kampana proposes gender-equal rights to succession. She imagines a future in which women would not only not be burnt in an ineffectual attempt at following their men into the afterlife, but would not need marriage at all; would put down roots in themselves, instead of being known only through their relationships. Inverting the gender normative of the epic where the great male poet narrates his drama of masculine conquests, war, violence and intrigue, to a necessarily male scribe/acolyte, Pampa Kampana tells her tale of magic, political ambition, exile, and the inexorable cycle of victory and defeat, embedding within it, a clear critique of war, to a female scribe, one who rises to the rank of Queen in this grand narrative. Hers is not just another feminist utopia doomed to failure – it is, perhaps, a roadmap that connects the past to the future.

The scale of Victory City is, appropriately enough, epic. The story it tells spans a period of two centuries, turning temporality fluid, building up a vast cast of characters, digressing into several sub-plots, telling stories within stories, like the epics always do. It is also characteristically Rushdie’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on our present-day reality.

When Hukka, referring to their cowherd days, proposes that cows would remain important in this new kingdom they were creating and Bukka insists it must be only metaphorical, one can’t help but chuckle at the dark turn the metaphor has taken in a world where cow vigilantism has meant violence and brutality. Cleverly, the writer weaves in tropes from pop-culture, and even a fairytale or two, pushing us, through it all, to an acknowledgement of that epic struggle – that between power and resistance.

Wherever there is oppression, it will meet resistance, even when the odds are stacked against the disadvantaged, Victory City tells us. Religious extremism will always be challenged from within. The role of the writer in this eternal flux of control and subversion is that of chronicler, choosing wisely the distance between reality and imagination. Like Pampa Kampana, poet and prophetess, Rushdie also tells us that the wheels of time turn, and both victors and the vanquished are remembered only in the stories that are told of them: “Words are the only victors.” We would do well to remember the lesson.

Victory City, Salman Rushdie, Penguin.