Salman Rushdie knows how to tell an engaging story filled with humor and tragedy. He’s done so time and again, and Victory City is the latest addition to his catalogue.
The story opens with the purported recent discovery of an epic poem written by Pampa Kampana in southern India during the 14th century. The narrator is a “spinner of yarns” who retells the story in “plainer language.” The epic begins with an unknown king losing a “no-name” battle. This unlucky king is beheaded by the opposing army. The women in the conquered city are even more unlucky. As tradition demands, these women commit suicide by walking into a bonfire. That’s what Pampa’s mother does – leaving the nine-year old an orphan who must now fend for herself.
After witnessing the mass suicide, Pampa makes a decision. “She would not sacrifice her body merely to follow dead men into the afterworld.” A goddess (also named Pampa) hears this and grants her a blessing that changes young Pampa’s life. She begins to speak with the majestic voice of a goddess and becomes a prophet and miracle worker.
The goddess tells Pampa “you will fight to make sure that no more women are ever burned in this fashion, and that men start considering women in new ways, and you will live just long enough to witness both your success and failure.” That takes 247 years. And sometimes a blessing can be a curse, because 247 years means she will see everyone she loves die.
A few years later Pampa gets hold of magic seeds, and from these seeds Bisnaga (meaning Victory City) grows. In Bisnaga women are free to work at any job they want. The arts are not frivolous. “They are essential to a society’s health and well-being.” But one person’s art is another person’s porn, and every action has a reaction. Each success is countered by religious extremism until the prophecy is finally fulfilled.
No surprises here – Rushdie has personal experience with religious extremism’s brutality, and concerns about religious extremism are as relevant today as ever. So the story is absorbing for that reason alone.
But this is Salman Rushdie, so the story is much more than a battle between feminism and religious patriarchies. It is also about the importance of stories, because even Pampa doesn’t live forever. People die and cities collapse into ruins, but some stories live on. “All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors.” But that assumes the stories survive – that books and women aren’t fuel for bonfires.
Remember, Pampa’s poem opens with a forgotten king and a no-name battle. His story did not survive time’s ravages. And it is only through chance that Pampa’s does – after 450 years of silence. According to our “spinner of yarns” the poem was only recently found in a clay pot among ancient ruins.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor