In literature, if not often in life, onomastics can determine destiny. The name of the protagonist of Rushdie’s 15th novel, Victory City, Pampa Kampana is no contingent fact. Instead, it—metafictionally—augurs she’ll touch and interact with the fates of people across a wide geographical expanse; much like the eponymous river Pampa which is the third longest in Kerala and called the Ganges of the South. She’ll wield power like the goddess Parvati, the consort of Shiva who is locally known by the same diminutive. The reverberations—kampana—of her words and deeds too will be felt beyond her time and place. The kingdom Pampa Kampana founds is called Vijayanagar or Victory City but it is also tellingly christened Bisnaga or poison-snake by one of her foreign lovers. Victory may come from within but destruction will come from without.
A historian by training Rushdie and equally his unreliable narrator here unspool a yarn looping around the fictional counterpart of the Vijayanagar empire of 1336–1565; which includes the modern Indian states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa, Telangana and Maharashtra. Inter alia the reader is given a brisk and juicy tour of the human rather than merely logistical dimensions of family intrigue, colonisation, and political and religious conflict in late medieval and early modern India.
The story itself comes to us in the form of a translated and abridged version of a 24,000 verse Sanskrit epic, “Jaya[P]arajaya” [Victory+Defeat], found by a self-proclaimed “spinner of yarns” in a pot buried in the ground. In it a kingdom sprouts from Pampa’s Okra seeds and magic spells, complete with people who have backstories and memories whispered into existence by the goddess possessing the protagonist. The kingdom which lasts 238 years and ends with the death of Pampa is first ruled by cowherds Hukka and Bukka Sangama whom she anoints and marries in turn before moving on to marry other upstart kings in their time on the Vijayanagar throne. A succession of kings are deposed, coups are foiled, co-wives plot against each other, uncles usurp the share of their charges, and lovers meet, part, and reunite as different people. All at a clip that shows Rushdie to be a master at accreting detail and compressing quotidian facts into archetypes and myths; a writer equally deft in dealing reality and magic.
The Sangama brothers’ consecutive rule prefigures the political and social challenges every subsequent kingship will have to face. Hukka and Bukka will be content to leave the uncircumcised intact but their tolerance will not be reciprocated by their subjects and other rulers to come. If not every era is as memorable as the precedent set by the Sangama period the blame lies with the goddess’ limited powers rather than Rushdie’s imagination as Gorra suggests in his NYT review. There are only so many ways to wrest power and then keep it from others champing at the bit. In a life spanning 247 years surprises must become less frequent the further along one gets from the origin. If novelty heightens differences then repetition elides them, and it is the relentless predictability of the will to power that makes various kings blur into each other. Take away the minutiae and you end up with a story that is easier to keep track of. But the price you pay is that it is reduced to a fable without the heft of historical drama at which level too Victory City operates.
Pampa and equally Rushdie must be given credit for foreseeing trouble that even magic cannot overcome. While omnipotence makes for compelling theology it makes for terrible storytelling. If Pampa were the monarch, or every ruler her puppet, the kingdom’s history would be a placid and thoroughly uninteresting one from a narrative standpoint. It is the constant stream of challenges to her power that make Pampa’s fortitude and the ultimate cunning of fallible divine wisdom apparent. What fun is there in the tall tale of a woman who ruled unopposed over a peaceable kingdom for over two hundred years? Even if that were a true story the unmitigated success of a female monarch in a man’s world could only read as the braggadocio of a bygone girl boss. The failure of divine intervention to triumph against all comers for all time is what gives Jayaparajaya its interest and Pampa her mystique.
Rushdie’s novels have always had powerful women characters. Zeeny Vakil in The Satanic Verses (1988), Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), Vina Apsara in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), and Qara Koz in The Enchantress of Florence (2008) among others demonstrate his penchant for strong, well-rounded, and emotionally and morally complex women characters. Criticism of Pampa Kampana’s gender politics from some quarters as being in thrall to men’s fantasies of non-monogamy is daft. It takes two to tango and sexual liberation for women cannot but have the collateral consequence of sexual liberation for their partners, some of whom would be men by any reckoning. Would they prefer Pampa to have enforced involuntary celibacy or rape on some men as a form of retributive justice, made male monogamy compulsory, or instituted mandatory lesbianism? That would only endow her with an antic gender politics of ressentiment or make a bitter Mrs. Grundy out of her. A vengeful shrew or moral scold at best the book’s heroine would become a less than inspiring figure, susceptible to the worst misogynistic stereotypes. Those unhappy that men too benefited from Pampa Kampana’s feminism fail to appreciate beneficence looks different in different times and places. Women lacking the freedom to choose their occupations aren’t wanting for menstrual leave. If Pampa’s achievements in making marriage optional, and outlawing ritual suicide after the husband’s death, seem tame her critics have failed to consider the barbarity of her society.
A signal achievement of Victory City is the way it interfenestrates the past and the present without succumbing to the allegorical temptation: straining to make events and people stand in for ideas. Instead Rushdie presents symbols and ideas at their face value and generously allows the reader to draw any contemporary parallels. When quondam cowherds Hukka and Bukka muse they’ll give pride of place to cows in their kingdom readers aware of the contemporary rise of cow politics to mobilise the Hindu vote bank in India can nod wryly. When denizens of Vijayanagar demonstrate against the throne with blank placards, fearful of being charged with sedition, contemporary readers can see the analogy with the Chinese white paper revolution. In the hands of a writer preoccupied with activism the urge to spell out the parallels between the fictional past and factual present would neuter the aesthetic power of the symbolism.
In the final section Pampa Kampana, coming to terms with the decline of the Vijayanagar empire, reflects that “words are the only victors.” Rushdie is alive to that scruple and will not let the moralising impulse detract from the power of words. Let those who want to learn something from fiction be content to be entertained and edified. Those who, like humourless ayatollahs, can’t manage this are ineducable.