Victory City by Salman Rushdie

I have never once managed to finish a Salman Rushdie book – not even this one – but audiobooks have revolutionised accessibility for me and this author. Victory City is the perfect story to listen to as it is framed by the narrative of being an epic poem, sealed in a jar and buried for centuries and now discovered and translated and simplified for all of us. I am not sure if it is a fairy tale but it certainly has many of the elements: animals who talk; magic; heroes and villains; and snippets of ‘threeness’ running throughout.

At the age of nine, Pampa sees her mother burned to ashes and vows that she will work to stop this ritual. Through this promise, she is seen by the gods and given an extended life and several magical qualities to enable this to happen. This trauma drives much of the tale and gives it its feminist view.

Pampa Kampana obtains some seeds, bean and okra, which she scatters across the land and out of them creates a city, Bisnaga, and its people. She breathes life into the people and then whispers their history to them until it becomes theirs. Her one aim is to become a monarch, her divine promise – gender equality.

Despite her extended life, Pampa eventually tires: she has had three husbands; built and overseen a city; kept an eye on her complicated extended family and finally had her eyes poked out. There have been wars and drought and dealings with many chauvanistic or mysoginistic men who have made the wrong decision. She has been revered as a goddess, despised as a witch, admired as a poet and feared as a warrior. And so she meets a scribe who can help her record her story.

Religion is a backdrop to this story. At one point as the first Princes are building an army they wonder whether it matters if the soldiers are circumcised or not. It turns out it doesn’t really matter. A soldier is a soldier. But later on in the story, Kings are corrupted by religion and their views on women become dictatorial and confining. We see this feminism and chauvanism playing out time and time again across the centuries, ebbing and flowing like a tide along with creation and destruction.

There are many references to other texts: people turning into birds as in Metamorhphoses and at one point Pampa falls asleep surrounded by a thicket of brambles reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty. The story could also be read as a post-colonial text with the idea that ‘we will no longer allow foreigners to tell us who we are’ and the pink monkeys who bring the need for cash and buying and selling are seen off after a particularly large battle. At one point it is also remarked that ‘fictions could be as powerful as histories’.

But whilst this is supposedly an ancient story, it is also a portal into current times as well. India is presently undergoing a nationalistic moment (as are many countries) with Modi and the Hindu Nationalists, where faith and power ‘have grown too close together’.

So, what is left at the end? Destruction of Bisnaga but

All that remains is this city of words. Words are the only victors.

End of the audiobook

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