Wizardry among the ruins

Intricate, charged and written more in poetry than prose, Rushdie’s new novel is a potent blend of magic realism and recorded history.
Last Updated : 05 February 2023, 00:35 IST

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History operates as narratives that are woven to contextualise artefacts, texts and ruins into plausible constructs. Historical fiction takes that narrativisation further into creative chaos; the links with relics are stretched tenuous and some of the conclusions derived would be outrageous if not for the fact that they are within the realm of probabilities. When Salman Rushdie opts to write historical fiction in his latest novel ‘Victory City’, expect the outrageous and the unthinkable, probabilities be damned.

The writer’s audacity stems from his prolific talent in warping facts and language until the reader may gasp at the sheer range of his creative genius. And the imagination at work that transforms the ruins and historicity of Vijayanagara (near modern-day Hampi), the first capital of the Vijayanagara Empire into Victory City, is agile, glittering and fearless. Many a time, plausibility is made to stand on its head even as the narrative gleams with greater insight. Like how the city grows out of half the seeds from a sack the young seer Pampa Kampana gave the two brothers, Hukka & Bukka; complete with its people and their stories.

At age nine, Pampa is a witness to the ritual jauhar after an unsuccessful battle — she watches her mother’s self-immolation. In intense grief, she discovers the voice of Devi within her as “thunder’s voice”. For another nine years she performs harsh penances until two deserters from an army, the goatherds Hukka and Bukka, seek her out for blessings. Even as she gifts them their instant kingdom, both brothers fall fiercely in love with her. Yet, when she opens her eyes after meditation and sees the Portuguese traveller Domingo Nunes, a veritable sun god with his golden hair and lisp, she truly experiences love. Nunes reads the situation accurately and knows he must be two steps ahead of the brothers if he is to survive. He chooses to rely on his knowledge of pyrotechnics and firearms to keep himself too relevant to be murdered.

Pampa, named after the river, lives to be 247 years old and dies the day she finishes her magnum opus as a blind poet and prophetess; a Sanskrit masterpiece named ‘Jayaparajaya’ of 24,000 verses, the length of the Ramayana. This book retraces the genesis and contents of this fictional tome. In essence, Pampa Kampana is not only the writer of the source text, this entire tale is more her story and her experiences than any other’s. As a woman she is not only formidable and dominant, she is truly amoral. Only after she makes it clear that she will continue to be with her lover Nunes does she consent to marry King Hukka. And she moves on effortlessly to marry the younger Bukka when he ascends the throne of Bisnaga, the only pronunciation of Vijayanagara Nunes’ alien tongue could approximate. ‘The death of the first king is also the birth of a dynasty,’ she says, ‘and another word for the evolution of a dynasty is history.’

Intricate, charged and written more in poetry than prose, the writing combines elements of recorded history with the author’s unique magic realism in that sublime mix which makes history more real, and accessible. The vistas at Hampi, the temple on the banks of the river, the profusely carved walls, the marketplace and palaces, and the formidable citadel walls, all ringed by the wilderness of smooth boulders come alive in this retelling of its creation. The ascension of the last king of the Tuluva dynasty, Krishna Tuluva, later to be Raya (aka Raja) a name to which he added divinity by calling himself Krishna Deva, is beautifully depicted through a debate, juxtapositions of the versions jump-cutting between the Italian traveller Niccolò de’ Vieri’s and Pampa’s accounts.

This demonstrates with ease how history is also a rumour, is politically charged, is given tinges of the narrator’s expectations and cultural background, and is also to be rubbished or taken in blind faith.

Is this version going to be loved and praised by all? Bukka is portrayed as a womaniser and a drunk until he ascends the throne vacated by his brother who is shown as a weak man turning increasingly to moralistic religious strictures. The portraits do not flatter yet they carve out versions that render characters all too familiar, realistic human entities. Is all of it true? It needn’t be. Fiction demands they just be persona the author breathes life into. So is this worth reading?

No book by Salman Rushdie may be ignored by a true lover of literature. His words are ballet. These kings are mortals first; with weaknesses, with human fates, with flaws and elements of perfection. Not all of it may be historically accurate. Even ‘Jayaparajaya’ is both fictional and a reminder that glories fade. Only works of art survive.

Published 04 February 2023, 20:09 IST

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