In the opening scene of Salman Rushdie’s Victory City, Pampa Kampana, the near-immortal prophetess and future queen of a medieval city in southern India, watches her mother being burned alive as a child. The small kingdom in which she and her mother reside has fallen, and the surviving women hurl themselves into a giant fire, an ancient Hindu practice known as jauhar, in which women participated in mass self-immolation to counter rape, capture or slavery after the battle was lost.
Debated by historians whether the practice was forced or willing (as if women at the time had the luxury of free choice), the bodies of Indian women were nevertheless relegated to proxies of honor for their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Without their men, they were ashes for fire, even if their embrace of its warmth was voluntary: safeguarding the honor of family, caste and kingdom came first. The thirteenth-century Muslim poet Amir Khusro called jauhar “no doubt magical and superstitious, but heroic.”
Khusro graced the court of Alauddin Khilji, a Muslim ruler infamous for deposing a Rajput king and his queen, Padmavati, a storied beauty who died in a mass jauhar ritual as her court fell to the conqueror. In Mridula Behari’s 1990 novel Padmini, Padmavati bathes and consecrates herself in anticipation of merging with the fire. Her hands are adorned with henna, a bindi gleams on her forehead and she is attired in her lush, deep red wedding dress, sanctifying jauhar as no less than a holy ritual. Bollywood filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2018 film Padmaavat, a lavish, melodramatic epic with a production budget of $24 million, dramatizes the historical event in a similar fashion. In the final scene, Padmavati, played by Deepika Padukone (the highest-paid actress in Bollywood), swathed in gold, pearls and jewels, an embroidered dark pink veil billowing in the smoky wind, and her moist eyes thickly rimmed with kohl, leads generations of women into the glowing pyres.
As Pampa Kampana’s mother’s flesh bakes in the fire, the nine-year-old child makes a resolution: “She would laugh at death and turn her face toward life. 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.” The determination and sense of predestination, as if the events of the book have already happened, continue throughout the novel, which is written as an epic poem recounting the past. Even as Rushdie contends with medieval India, he is writing about the present state of the subcontinent, specifically the religious schism between Hindus and Muslims in the wake of 200 years of colonialism, and the reduction of women to symbols, rather than people.
As such, Victory City is delightfully self-aware, sometimes tongue-in-cheek with its irony, as if Rushdie is in on the joke (which he absolutely is). After escaping the fire, Pampa Kampana is possessed by a goddess who instructs her to found a city, a utopia in which men and women will be equal, and “no more women are ever burned in this fashion.” Hiding away in a cave with Vidyasagar, a priest who sometimes sexually abuses her, Pampa Kampana grows to become a beautiful woman, and whispers a city into existence, crowning the elder brother of two unknown cowherds as king. As the king and his younger brother discuss establishing a religion for the newfound city, Hukka the older says, “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to go down there and ask them all to open their lungis, pull down their sarongs?” He is referring, of course, to seeing who is circumcised or not, identifying who is Hindu and who is Muslim. “You think that’s a good way to begin?” Bukka the younger agrees, and decides it’s not really worth the hassle: “It’s probably a mixture, and so what.”
Bisnaga is thus a progressive city, a beacon of light in a warring subcontinent, not least because of its queen and de facto spiritual founder, Pampa Kampana. Both respected and feared as a goddess, Pampa Kampana weds Hukka, but keeps Domingo Nuñes, a Portuguese tradesman, as a lover on the side, punishing anyone who criticizes her with her sinister magic—including her husband, the king. Pampa Kampana’s love and wrath, her capacity for creation and destruction, render her a goddess-like figure. For women living in a traditional patriarchy, the roots of a system that dates back millennia, the only access of power in the absence of a man is through the claim of divinity. Pampa Kampana is not only figuratively blessed by the goddess Parvati, but draws literal power from the divine in Rushdie’s magical realist fable, using the wellspring of her magic to build the city.
“The mother goddess gives life, but takes it away,” Camille Paglia writes in Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, a seminal arts criticism that stirred controversy when published in 1990. “She is morally ambivalent, violent as well as benevolent.” Paglia argues that ancient religions like Buddhism and Hinduism encouraged a unification with the state of nature and the world, an acceptance of what could not be changed, rather than striving to overcome it in the way the Abrahamic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam—“sky-cults” helmed by men—did. Embracing the fire, being one with the elements, was then perhaps the best option for Hindu women in the wake of defeat after battle. When women were powerful, they drew meaning from the “chthonian” soil of the earth, represented in fertility goddesses like Ishtar, Parvati and Aphrodite, or more rarely, feminized representations of chaos and death like Ereshkigal, Kali and Persephone. Men needed women to reproduce, but feared the power of creation which resided in her body, the mystery of menstruation, the regeneration of pregnancy, and of course, the sex and beauty that threatened to devour them.
And yet, the goddess was not necessarily a feminist invention. In worshiping her, kneeling in pooja in reverence of an idol, men perceived her as beyond human. “Every totem lives in taboo,” Paglia wrote. Pampa Kampana yearns to change the course of history, and raise a utopian empire, but she is a prisoner of her own archetype. She is a living, walking contradiction, not unlike most people in South Asia who are similarly caught between modern aspirations and the weight of tradition, a vicious identity crisis that has led to the rise of far–right, fascist movements of religious identity, which seek to flash the distorted reflection of the past in the mirror of the future and present, which seethe in the streets and engulf political office, killing anyone who has the bad kismet of crossing the warpath.
Rushdie understands the bind in which Pampa Kampana exists, and he makes fun of it. Absurdism is the author’s weapon of choice: if you can’t cry, then may as well laugh at how ridiculous all of this is. In revenge of the priest who molested her as a girl, Pampa Kampana decrees that erotic carvings should be illustrated in every walk of life: in the bazaars, the exteriors of buildings, the hallways of the palace, and more. But not all people are keen on the hedonistic celebration of ecstasy, not because of prudishness, but the all-too-human doubts awakened by the glorious erotic scenes in the artworks. “[W]hat ordinary guy could rise to such gymnastic heights,” Haleya Kote, a political advisor and the leader of an underground civil protest movement, demurs. “It’s complicated.”
Pampa Kampana uses her power to even the score for losing her mother and community as a child, and establishes schools for girls and designates that the line of succession will also be female (never mind her daughters, the princesses, bear the reddish hair and green eyes of the queen’s European paramour). After she disowns her young sons for exposing tyrannical boyish entitlement, her popularity—always tinged by fear and awe of her forever youth—wanes, and after the death of the second king, she flees with the princesses to an enchanted forest where time stops, and the goddess Aranyani dances in the trees, “anklet bells jingling.” The writing in this part of the book is some of the best, seducing the reader into the glittering mystery of the jungle, the mysticism of things felt but unseen, the otherworldly fantasy of magical creatures, and utilizing aesthetic and narrative conceits that have always appeared in orally-conveyed Indian folktales, snake-like epic stories that were memorized and woven by word of mouth in large, informal gatherings. The jungle, even as a refuge, is no less than the site of a transient, shimmering quest, and it is also where Pampa Kampana experiences the worst tragedy of her adult life. She loses all three of her daughters—the eldest to heartbreak, the second to marriage, and the youngest to the jungle—and finally understands what it means to remain undying as her loved ones pass into the ground.
If Victory City were a movie, it’s around here where the intermission would give the audience pause, signaling the bathroom break or running to the counter to grab more popcorn and soda. As a story, it is an epic, breaking out of the western conventions of the novel, and favoring the roving, unfurling tales of oral storytellers, the magnificent, tumbling verse of Persian poems or Hindu texts, and yes, the three-hour plus runtime of most Bollywood films. Most stories of significance in South Asia tend to be generational sagas, not a surprise in a region that is family-oriented and held to ties of blood and lineage. Victory City is no different, only that Pampa Kampana is the mainstay throughout the eras, ennobled in the tragedy of her immortality, of her skin not cracking and her sameness signaling her purpose in the world. She belongs completely to Bisnaga, which is why she can never truly belong to herself.
The second half of the novel deals with Pampa Kampana’s stubborn attempts to redirect Bisnaga on the path of her vision, and the revelation the goddess sent to her when she was a girl. The city has strayed, and she has been forgotten: a myth that most people believe isn’t true. Pampa Kampana joins the court of a narcissistic king, Krishnadevaraya, a mortal man convinced he’s a god, and later marries him and rules the city as queen regent. When the son of Krishnadevaraya by another queen dies, the king blames Pampa Kampana in a fit of rage and has her eyes removed with “hot iron rods.”
Life imitates art, and it’s hard not to notice the echo between the heroine’s blindness and Rushdie’s own partial blindness after a man stabbed the author several times at a lecture last year. Perhaps what makes these instances similar isn’t just the shared fact of violence, or even the ease of turning a knife on someone based on a spurious rumor, but the reality that violence can occur at a random whim, amount to cruel senselessness, perhaps lack a discernible reason for why it even happened in the first place.
Like most people of his generation in India and Pakistan, Salman Rushdie was baptized in the blood of Partition in 1947 after the British left India and abandoned Sikhs and Hindus, and Muslims to kill each other. “She was already a corpse… Just cold meat,” Saadat Hasan Manto, an Urdu-language writer, who famously chronicled the horrors of Partition after the postcolonial dawn of freedom, wrote in his story “Cold Meat,” which landed him in court in Pakistan in an obscenity trial. Confronting censorship, and suffering violence in the name of religion are a part of Rushdie’s inheritance. Even if he had never written The Satanic Verses, and Khomeini had never pronounced the fatwa as a final stunt on his deathbed, Rushdie would still be subject to all the delights of Narendra Modi’s India as a man with a Muslim name, and the novel suggests he possibly knows this. If he had lived in Pakistan, he’d likely never have written any of his novels at all.
When Pampa Kampana is ordered to be blinded, it seems everything is going well. She has made her best efforts for the empire, she is recognized as the mother of the city, and she is finally ruling as regent with the sign-off of the king.
Was Krishnadevaraya having a bad day? Did he aim the grief of his son’s death against the people closest to him, because it is easier to hurt those we love, or those who are like us, those we feel have maybe betrayed us or left us? Did he project his own anger, fear and psychological deprivation on somebody who did not deserve it? Did he strike against the person who was closest to him, because she was the one he feared the most intensely?
Pampa Kampana retires to a monastery, where she writes of the life she has lived and the story of her city. Slowly, but surely, she begins to grow old, and complains of headaches, pains, and stiff joints, silver strands peppering her silky black hair. She is not a goddess, but mortal after all. The magic that sustained her youth fades. She becomes a writer, and leaves behind the record that she once lived and dreamed of making a better world.