The beginning of Midnight’s Children is difficult to forget. “I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947.” And 42 years later, the last words of Victory City, as Bisnaga turned to “rubble, blood, ash” are written to be remembered: “Words are the only victors”.
These words―symbolic, prophetic, powerful and certainly poignant―are the mantra by which Salman Rushdie has chosen to live. Victory City is the manifesto that all writers need. That it comes at a time when Rushdie, too, has lived to tell the tale about the attack that left him blind in one eye only reinforces its power. And makes Victory City both a symbol of his defiance and a reaffirmation of the sheer force of his talent. No one tells a story quite as seductively, compellingly, vividly and addictively as him. Rushdie―the gladiator with a pen mightier than a sword―has the ability to keep you engrossed. We giggle, sigh, dream and willingly sink into a world that he has conjured up.
The story of Victory City is told by Pampa Kampana―a poet “miracle worker and prophetess’’ who grew a city out of seeds. “It was necessary she said to do something to cure the multitude of its unreality,’’ writes Rushdie. “Her solution was fiction.” The poet, who lived to be 247 years old, is the perfect Rushdie-esque heroine. She does not age and she whispers cities into being. Her poem―the immortal masterpiece Jayaparajaya (Victory and Defeat)―is written in Sanskrit and is as long as the Ramayana.
Pampa Kampana loses her mother when she is nine, as all the women of the kingdom walk into a bonfire. She remains dry-eyed, but it scars her. The story of the empire, of war, of women warriors, of religion and of exile―as witnessed and told through the poet’s word―is vintage Rushdie.
Midnight’s Children was a book that changed Rushdie’s destiny and opened the door for Indian writers. Victory City arrives at a time when “the party line regarding members of other faiths―we are good, they are bad―had a certain infectious clarity. So did the idea that dissent was unpatriotic.’’
The book is his sixteenth, a new addition to the vast array of worlds that Rushdie has constructed, from Grimus (1975), to the gorgeous Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), to The Enchantress of Florence (2008). This one is unmistakably Indian. Set in India, Bharat and Hindustan, Rushdie returns to familiar ground blending history and magic realism to create a story with the power of myth and the sweep of an epic. Oddly, Pampa Kampana is blinded in the novel, another quirk that moves from imagination to reality.
The book’s themes are classic Rushdie―intolerance, fundamentalism and, of course, the power of stories. In Victory City, the poet has the last word. The ones that have the power finally are those that write. It is as much a comfort for writers as it is a challenge for those who want to silence them. “How are they remembered now, these kings, these queens?” he writes. “They exist now only in words. While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both. Now they are neither. Words are the only victors….”
Excerpts from the book
As the humbled poet was leaving Pampa’s presence, her three daughters came in. Yotshna, Zerelda and Yuktasri were a trio of mature beauties as formidable as their mother. Nachana bowed to them as he left, and delivered this parting shot: ‘Your Majesty, your daughters have now become your sisters.’ And with this final failed attempt at flattery he was gone.
The line struck Pampa Kampana’s heart like an arrow. ‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘it’s happening again.’ People were growing old all around her while she remained unchanged. Her beloved Bukka was sixty-six now, with bad knees, and he was often short of breath; he was really in no condition to ride to war. Meanwhile, if she paused to work it out, she herself was approaching her fiftieth birthday, but she still looked like a young woman of perhaps twenty-one or twenty-two. So, yes, the girls looked like her older sisters, not her children―maybe even her aunts, for by now they were spinster ladies in their thirties. She had a vision of a day in the future when they would be in their mid-sixties or older and she would still, to all appearances, be a young woman of perhaps twenty-seven. She would probably be looking under thirty when they died of old age. She feared that she might once again have to harden her heart, as she had with Domingo Nunes. Was she going to have to learn how to stop loving them, so that she could let them go while she lived on? What would it do to her, to bury her children one by one? Would she weep or remain dry-eyed? Would she have learned the spiritual technique of detachment from the world, which would ward off grief, or would she be annihilated by their departure and long for her own death, which obstinately refused to come? Or maybe they would be lucky and all die young together, in a battle or an accident. Or maybe they would all be murdered in their beds.
Her daughters wouldn’t let her sit alone with that thundercloud over her head. ‘Come with us,’ Zerelda cried. ‘We’re going to swordsmanship class.’
Pampa Kampana had wanted them to learn pottery, as she had, and her mother Radha too, but the three sisters were uninterested in the potter’s wheel, which continued to be Pampa Kampana’s solitary hobby. She had raised her daughters to be better than men, better-educated than any man and more outspoken, and they could also ride horses better than men and argue better and fight harder and more effectively than any male warrior in the army. When Bukka sent his ambassador to China, Pampa Kampana told him, ‘They have extraordinary combat skills in that country, I hear. Youngsters learn about bare-hand fights and swords and spears too, long knives and short daggers also, and blowpipes with poisoned darts, I think. Bring me back the best martial arts instructor you can find.’ The ambassador had done as she commanded, and now Grandmaster Li Ye-He was installed as chief instructor of Wudang Sword at the Green Destiny kwoon―which was to say, ‘school’―of Bisnaga, and all four royal women were his star students.
‘Yes,’ Pampa Kampana agreed, shrugging off her sadness. ‘Let’s go and fight.’
The kwoon was a wooden building made by Bisnagan craftsmen (and craftswomen) in the prescribed Chinese fashion, under the direction of Grandmaster Li. There was a central quadrangle, open to the sky, and this was where the fighting mat was rolled out every day. Around the quadrangle the building rose up for three storeys, with balconies overlooking the fighting square, and there were rooms for study and meditation as well. Pampa Kampana found very beautiful the presence of this alien building near the heart of Bisnaga, one world penetrating another for the benefit of both. ‘Grandmaster Li,’ she said, bowing, as she entered the kwoon with her daughters, ‘I bring my girls to you. You should know that they all tell me they intend to find you a Bisnagan wife.’
All four women tried every day to make this kind of remark in the hope of coaxing a reaction, a smile, perhaps even a blush, out of the instructor. But his face remained impassive. ‘Learn from him,’ Pampa Kampana advised her daughters. ‘Such magnificent self-control, such awe-inspiring stillness, is a power we should all try to acquire.’
As she watched her daughters working out on the fighting mat in the kwoon, duelling in pairs, Pampa Kampana noticed, not for the first time, that they were developing supernatural skills. In the midst of a bout they could run up walls as if they were floors, they could leap gravity-defying distances from balcony to balcony on the upper levels of the school, they could spin so fast that they created little tornados around themselves, which bore them vertically into the air, and they could use an aerial somersault technique―somersaulting, so to speak, up an invisible staircase in the air―which Grandmaster Li avowed he had never seen before. Their sword skills were so extraordinary that Pampa Kampana understood they could defend themselves against a small army. She hoped she would never need to put that belief to the test.
She worked with Grandmaster Li as well, but in solitude, preferring to be simply a proud mother while her daughters had their lessons, and to attend to her own education by herself. In her private sessions with Li it quickly became clear that they were equals. ‘I have nothing to teach you,’ said Li Ye-He. ‘But to fight with you sharpens my own skills, so it would be more truthful to say that you are teaching me.’ In this way, Pampa Kampana learned that the goddess had granted her even more than she had previously suspected.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India
By Salman Rushdie
Published by Penguin Random House India
Price Rs699; pages 342