REVIEW | Rushdie's extravagant tale of trying to build a good society has echoes for SA

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Ahmed Salman Rushdie (Photo: Bernhard Robben/Getty Images)
Ahmed Salman Rushdie (Photo: Bernhard Robben/Getty Images)

BOOK: Victory City by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape)

For those who love India, Salman Rushdie's novels, or both, this is vintage Rushdie – a good story with its sensitive and strong elephant feet firmly planted in another reality, surmounted by an elaborate howdah and riders who revel in excess and reveal common human traits. Rushdie's latest work is steeped in the history of 14th-century India, religious myth and tradition, as well as insight into our age-old human condition, laced with many touches of fun and gentle satire. It is this combination of insight and humour that sometimes infuriates people, especially those who take themselves with rigid seriousness, and for whom flexible accommodations of other ways is not an option. 

Though shorter than many of his novels, this is an intricate read, covering several generations of mainly Hindu but also Muslim and Buddhist Indians. A few Christians with pale skin, red hair and green eyes, Portuguese horse traders, also feature. 

The story hinges on the long life of Pampa Kampana, whose written narration is buried in a clay pot, and when it is revealed as the Jayaparajaya, "an immortal masterpiece", it rivals other great Indian texts such as the Ramayana. How much of this is Rushdie's invention or based on known history, is not clear, but that matters not as he sweeps the reader along with his long sinuous sentences and outrageously lovely imagery.

It begins with Pampa Kampana as a nine-year-old girl abandoned by her mother, whom she never forgives for "being sociable" and joining the other wives on the funeral pyre of her husband. Rushdie not only resists this practice throughout this novel, but shows women in considerable positions of influence, power and strength. Pampa Kampana is herself the wisest of rulers when appointed as regent, and as queen to a ruling king, and the all-women palace guard is led by two formidable women, Thimma the Huge and Ulupi Junior.

Pampa Kampana survives her orphan condition in the imperfect care of an ascetic cave hermit, but she is the source of a bag of vegetable seeds given to two refugee horse thieves. The magnificent city of Bisnaga, Victory City, grows from this bag of seeds, and is further whispered and spoken into existence by Pampa Kampana through whom the divine energy of the Goddess Parvati is manifested. These seed scatterers are Hukka and Bukka, the first two kings of the Bisnaga empire. 

Victory City
Victory City by Salman Rushdie.

By the time Rushdie gets to describe the family arrangements for the three lesser brothers of Hukka and Bukka, he is in full swing. Pampa creates three armies for them, and here Rushdie's views on war are gently but relentlessly ironic. When she creates the soldiers, she tells them who they are: "In that mysterious moment between sleeping and waking they each heard the imaginary narrative of their family's fictional generations, and discovered how long ago they had decided to join the new empire's forces..." and so on. But Rushdie does not fail to describe what most soldiers, seeking glory and victory on the battlefield, do not want to think about, namely those essential divisions that bring up the rear of every army, the kitchens, hospitals and latrines.

So Pampa Kampana creates the great city and empire of Bisnaga, and the reader follows her life, with its ascendancy and decline in which we see the ebb and flow of austere religious control as well as times when the arts of music, poetry, architecture and sculpture flourish. It is in these periods of creativity that there is also acceptance of same-sex love, with variations. At the same time there is a successful underground revolutionary movement called by the mild name of "Remonstrance". How useful if noisy and intimidating political activists today could try this. Would a remonstrance not work as well as a protest, and be less expensive and exhausting? In Rushdie's, Bisnaga Remonstrance was strong and effective.

Toward the end of the epic tale, a drought decimates the land and the king's only son dies of a mysterious disease. The king, Krishnadevaraja, is so deranged in his grief that he is persuaded that Pampa Kampana and his senior advisor are responsible, and he orders them to have their eyes put out. This horrific scene is described in detail. Too late the king realises he has made a terrible mistake, and is "filled with repentance and shame, consumed by the horror of self-knowledge – the knowledge that his lightning storms of rage had finally broken his world..."

This novel was written a short while before Rushdie himself lost an eye in a knife attack at a public gathering. This is weirdly portentous, but Pampa Kampana’s suffering and blindness and her gradual recovery in the care of the hermit monks, once again, is one of the best parts of the book. This is when she begins to write her story and is helped by a granddaughter who takes dictation for her. Elephants, pigeons and magical Cheel birds abound.

While this is a transporting escape into this extraordinary past, it is always rooted in human life and has echoes for us in South Africa. The allegory of building a perfect society which nevertheless falls into ruin will resonate for those of us who expected a different outcome after the victory of democracy in 1994. There is comfort in knowing, as Rushdie shows us, that though these reigns and regimes roll onward, our human life persists. In her great book Pampa Kampana observed, “... it’s good to know that over there is not so very unlike over here, and that human intelligence and human stupidity, as well as human nature, the best and the worst of it, are the great constants in the changing world.”

ALSO READ | Salman Rushdie’s Victory City: A storyteller at the height of his powers

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