Rushdie’s ‘Victory City’: A Fictionalized Historical Episode

Haribol Acharya

“I, Pampa Kampana, am the author of this book. I have lived to see an empire rise and fall. How are they remembered now, these kings, these queens? They exist now only in words.”


History exists in words only we never know it in its entirety. And it is mostly fabricated, fictionalized to suit a particular interest. An artist like Rushdie can fictionalize, novelize history since the purpose of writing novels are primarily to entertain the reader and secondly a good writer never fails to edify as well.

Salman Rushdie’s novel Victory City is a time-traveller. It abandons the modern era and travels to a past that was totally forgotten and once again he popularizes a story as the Ramayana that has supposedly happened somewhere in fourteenth century India. This is nearly, if not totally a trans-creation, though condensed, of a Sanskrit saga, a long poem, which remained buried in a clay pot in the ground for centuries. Here the protagonist is a nine year old, Pampa Kampana. She has been a demigod when the Goddess Parvati possessed her. She was the one to found, in fact magically a city within a city called Vijayanagar, in English parlance Victory City, the title of the novel by Rushdie was kept after the name of the city. The city was later named Bisnaga. Pampa Kampana, an enchantress, imagines a new city and civilization into existence from magic seeds. She was graced (or cursed?) to have a life of 247 years and in that prolonged lifespan she witnessed innumerable victories and defeats. And Pampa the poet recounted all she had undergone in that long poem thinking that posterity could read it.

Rushdie returns to the country of his birth after considerable time to reread some of its history and legend that becomes a roadmap to his book Victory City, considered a masterpiece and has been a bestseller in the New York Times. It is a retelling of a time almost forgotten, as the protagonist wished when she wrote the poem that future generations could read it. The writer transports the reader to a time blurring the lines between the past and the present spinning the fabrics of magic in the garments of realism as he had done in some of his previous novels as well.

The storyline follows: It is a mythologized version of the rise and fall of Vijaynagar, the capital city of the Vijayanagar Empire which was later on erroneously pronounced as ‘Bisnaga’ by a Portuguese traveller.  And the history unfolds with the rediscovery of the Jayaparajaya which translates as “Victory and Defeat” a long poem written by Pampa Kampana. Rushdie writes: “We knew only the ruins that remained, and our memory of its history was ruined as well, by the passage of time, the imperfections of memory.” It goes with in the words of Pampana: “History is the consequence not only of people’s actions but also their forgetfulness.”

It has been long since there was a big empire called Vijayanagar, and historically it covered most of south Asia and mythically it was created by Pampa Kampana, an enchantress who magically created a civilization that spanned, prospered, expanded and finally met a downfall over a span of over two hundred years. It came to ruination. She is possessed by Parvati, the Goddess. The story goes like this: The kingdom was defeated by a Delihi Sultan. And in the battlefield so many men soldiers lost their lives and many of their widowed wives did not choose to live thereafter and lit a bonfire and committed mass suicide. Pampa Kampana was nine years old only and when she was watching this grisly scene with tears in her eyes when Radha Kampana, her mother too walked into the fire. Pampa Kampana refused to walk into the fire. To make this long story short skipping some of the events that sequenced there, Pampa Kampana “laugh at death and turn her face toward life.” The Goddess Parvati had said. “In this exact place a great city will rise …its empire will last for more than two centuries. …You will fight to make sure that no more women are ever burned…and you will long enough to witness both your success and failure. A deity’s bounty is a two-edged sword.”

Pampa Kampana came to a cave wherein she saw an ascetic named Vidhyasagar, and they lived in the same cave but sleeping on opposite corners as he was living a life of abstinence, though it was a small room and in the dark anything could happened. And it happened. Though there was a vow of self-control in the young ascetic lust overrode him as it does on any other mortal. As for Pampa Kampana she tried to tell herself that what happened in the cave was an illusion and she erased it from her mind. At the same time she thought she never had a mother at all.

To make the long story short, once the two Sangama siblings came there, cowherds from the hills who had heard of the ascetic and of the beauty of the young woman in search of some good advice. They introduced themselves to the young woman as Hukka and Bukka Sangama. They have escaped from the custody or imprisonment by a Sultan and they came for good advice from the ascetic so that they could live a new life. In fact it was the young woman instead of the sage who started giving them a bunch of advices: Now take these handfuls of seeds and sow them and these seeds will sprout into a city and civilization and soon people, animals, birds and the rest will populate the city. The two brothers scattered the seeds and the miracle city sprouted up before their astonished eyes. Then the city was filled with men and women, stray dogs and bony cows walked in the city. Even there was an army camp. Then Bukka said this is the act of creation and only the gods can do. They saw a palace with plenty of slaves. “If something can come out of nothing …anything is possible in this world” Bukka said.

Then Hukka Sangam was now king King Hukka Raya, the elder brother. There were two successive reigns of Hukka and Bukka in which she became queen and the consort. One of the intriguing things in the reign in which she never became a ruler that women were raised to equal with men and in some cases they rose above par with men. In that newly created kingdom women never walked into a bonfire. Another truth the story tells is every victory comes to devastation in the end.  She encountered so many glitches and hitches at a later stage of her journey and faces death threats and attacks.

To conclude, Victory City is the story of a sorceress who dreams an entire civilization into existence from magic seeds. Pampa was also a poet who lived for more than two centuries to see both victories and defeats which she recounts in a long poem for posterity. Rushdie combines history with mythology making it the brew of magic realism based on a real story of Vigayanagar.

Victory is the fifteenth novel written by Rushdie and the one published since the time he was brutally stabbed repeatedly in August 2022. He got lifelong injuries and he lost sight in one eye and after that he cannot use one of his hands.

Victory City takes us once again to India, the country of birth of the author and he finds interesting historical episodes and mythologies that intrigue him immensely. He amalgamates both fantasies and realism into a beautiful novel fusing facts and fiction in the interest of the reader.