Salman Rushdie Deftly Weaves Historical Fact With Mythological Fiction in ‘Victory City’

The story of Bisnaga begins with a severed head and a fire.

It is the 14th century, and the short-lived kingdom of Kampili is conquered by the Delhi Sultanate. The overthrown King Kampila Raya is beheaded, and his head is filled with straw and sent to Delhi for the amusement of the sultan. Then, the survivors of the fallen kingdom, the women whose sons and husbands died in battle, commit an act that changes the fate of India. Heads held high, they walk into a bonfire, unanimously and unflinchingly sacrificing themselves in an act of jauhar, or collective self-immolation. Only nine-year-old Pampa Kampana is left behind. As she watches her mother burn before her, life, as she knows it, comes to an end. Still, there is a nascent ferocity in her young mind: She decides never to make her mother’s last mistake. She would not sacrifice her body merely to follow dead men into the afterworld. She would refuse to die young and live, instead, to be impossibly, defiantly old. Perhaps it is this defiance that attracts the attention of her celestial namesake, the goddess Pampa, or Parvati, who, at that moment, takes possession of the young girl. From that moment on, Pampa Kampana becomes part woman, part goddess, and creates what will eventually come to be known as the Bisnaga Empire. Thus begins Salman Rushdie’s epic, mythical reimagining of the rise and fall of the Vijayanagara Empire, Victory City.

Pampa Kampana—she is almost always referred to by her full name, possibly out of reverence, but more likely because of the delightful musicality of the two words combined—hopes to create a kingdom in which women are equal to men in all respects. When she whispers life into the freshly created citizens of Bisnaga, she ensures that the women are as entitled as the men to freely roam the streets, study, work, conduct business, and openly profess their love for whomever they please. Her kingdom is, to the modern reader, a feminist paradise—but even the powers of the almighty goddess Parvati prove to be no match for the natural tendencies of humankind. Greed and corruption overwhelm the populace, and religious intolerance poisons governance. In a thinly veiled allegory for real-world politics, all the beauty that Pampa Kampana brought to life is destroyed—but still, we are promised that the fortunes of the people will rise again.

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