City of Words

— Supriya Chaudhuri

Salman Rushdie. Victory City. Penguin Random House, 2023. Pp. 338. Rs. 699

In February last year I was in Hampi, Karnataka, once the sacral core of the city of Vijayanagara, capital of India’s last great Hindu empire. Sitting in the shadow of the Virupaksha temple, I read Salman Rushdie’s fifteenth novel, Victory City, a magical, intricate history of the foundation and destruction of the city of Vijayanagara, or Bisnaga, as it was called by the Portuguese traveller Domingo Paes. Once a realm whose fabled wealth and grandeur drew visitors from all over the world, the Vijayanagara empire lasted just over two centuries. Founded in 1336 by Harihara I and Bukka Raya of the Sangama dynasty, it reached its peak of glory under Krishnadevaraya, the Tuluva poet-king who ruled Vijayanagara from 1509 to 1529, and composed the Telugu devotional epic Āmuktamālyada, or Giver of the Worn Garland.

In 1565, just three decades after Krishnadevaraya’s death, his son-in-law Aliya Rama Raya was defeated in the battle of Talikota by the combined assault of the Muslim sultans of the Deccan. Accounts of the battle and its aftermath, mainly received from the court historians of Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Bidar and Golconda, and letters from the governor of Goa, describe a process of destruction through which sites of royal power in Vijayanagara were looted and razed to the ground. What remained at Hampi, in the Tungabhadra river-basin, was a devastated, burnt-out landscape, the stone foundations of palaces, towers, walls and markets, and some magnificent surviving temples, scattered amid the huge, almost surreally piled-up boulders that bear witness to a much earlier history of the earth itself.

Rushdie’s novel offers us a mythical history of the city, drawing upon both archival and literary sources, but claiming to retell a fictional epic, the Jayaparajaya, composed by the prophetess Pampa Kampana. In Rushdie’s myth of origins, Pampa’s blessing, given to a bag of seeds sown by the cowherd brothers Hukka and Bukka, brings a great city into existence, and her whispered breath awakens it into life, memory and history. In assigning the city’s origin to the power of a female prophetess, Rushdie transforms an existing foundation myth, relating how the “low-caste” brothers met the sage Vidyaranya, one of the most noted scholars of Advaita-Vedanta at the Sringeri math in the fourteenth century, and named their city after him as Vidyanagara (‘city of learning’), only to change it later to Vijayanagara (‘victory city’). In fact, Hukka and Bukka were servants of the Kakatiya rulers of Warangal, taken as prisoners to Delhi, where they converted to Islam and were sent to administer the Deccan, there re-converting to found a Hindu kingdom.

The protagonist of Rushdie’s novel is the prophetess Pampa Kampana, daughter of a potter, fostered by the ascetic Vidyasagara. She bears the local name of the goddess Parvati, consort of Shiva, but is not herself a deity. Rushdie’s choice of name reminds us of the great tenth century Kannada Jain poet Adikavi Pampa, who graced the court of the Chalukya monarch Arikesari II. But his heroine’s other name is Gangadevi, and this recalls a 14th century female poet, author of the Sanskrit Madhura Vijayam, who chronicled the victory of her husband, Kumara Kampana, son of Bukka Raya, over the Madurai sultanate, and fought in battle alongside her husband. Gangadevi’s Madhura Vijayam, preserved for centuries in a traditional library, was ‘discovered’ only in 1916. Rushdie’s Pampa Kampana, born in the fourteenth century and living on for two hundred and forty-seven years, weaves her magical powers into the birth of the city of Vijayanagara, its growth, its glory, and ultimately, its decline and fall.

The Karnataka empire of Vijayanagara followed, and was inspired by, that of the Hoysalas and the Western Gangas in the same region, the Kakatiyas of the eastern Deccan, and the Cholas and Pandyas of the Tamil country. The splendour of its art and architecture drew from the artistic achievements of the Chalukyas, who began ruling at Badami from the sixth century onwards. Krishnadevaraya’s own military campaigns subdued the Deccani sultans of Bidar, Bijapur and Gulbarga, the Tamils of Srirangapatnam and the Gajapatis of Kalinga. His court extended patronage to writers in Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu, and his devotion to Ramanuja’s Srivaishnavism, celebrating the faith of the twelve Tamil mystical poet-saints or Alvars, produced a powerful current of bhakti in his kingdom that partly replaced an earlier Virashaiva or Lingayat tradition. Secular as well as religious literature flourished in the multicultural space of the Vijayanagara empire, including not only different Hindu sects but Jains, Buddhists, and Muslims. Even Rushdie’s fictional city contains its own critics and dissenters within it, members of an extremist underground movement known as the Remonstrance, whose ‘Five Remonstrances’ (with their Buddhist overtones) are initially quite puritanical, but end by becoming the voice of secularism and free speech.

Rushdie’s adroit, playful treatment of history, as of myth, produces a dazzling web of allusions and echoes, with the figure of Pampa Kampana, with her philosophy of love, compassion and equality, presiding over the most glorious moments of Vijayanagara history, and making possible its social and gender harmonies, as well as the magnificence of its art, poetry, architecture, and philosophy. Historically, the city’s riches were sufficient to overwhelm an early witness, the horse-trader Domingo Paes:

I cannot possibly describe it all, nor should I be believed if I tried to do so … for I went along with my head so often turned from one side to the other that I was almost falling backwards off my horse with my senses lost … Truly, I was so carried out with myself that it seemed as if, what I saw was a vision, and that I was in a dream.

There were indeed many witnesses to the glory of Vijayanagara, not all of them falling off their horses. There were Europeans, like the Venetian merchant Nicolò de Conti in the fifteenth century, the Bolognese adventurer Ludovico de Varthema in the sixteenth, the Portuguese trader Fernão Nunes who followed Paes, the Portuguese pastor and scrivener from Kochi, Duarte Barbosa, and another Italian, Cesare Federici, who reported on the ruined city in 1566. There are Turkish, Arab, and Persian sources, like the report submitted by the Persian ambassador ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Samarqandi, an emissary of the Timurid ruler Shah Rukh who visited in 1443, and the chronicle of Firishta (d. 1623), a court historian working in the Deccani kingdoms of Ahmadnagar and Bijapur at the end of the sixteenth century. In his account, Rushdie mingles historical names with speculative ones, keeping the Srirangapatna princess Tirumala, and transforming Chinna Devi into the Chinese princess Zerelda Li.

But Rushdie’s play with names, once the occasion for a truly Cratylan display of the epistemic function of language, is relatively subdued in this novel. My hopes for Gundappa, Erapalli and Bhagawat, Bukka Raya’s rascally offspring, named for three of Karnataka’s greatest cricketers, were sadly dashed. They play a minor role in the narrative and are ruffians without any of the grace and genius that distinguished their historical namesakes. Such is the fate of names when divorced from creative knowledge, so Rushdie seems to be telling us. Yet the language of his many-layered novel, written with a unique poetic urgency and power, carries its own promise of immortality. In her last lines of poetry before she seals the clay pot containing her epic, Pampa Kampana writes:

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.

While they lived, they were victors, or vanquished, or both.

Now they are neither.

Words are the only victors.

All that remains is this city of words.

Words are the only victors.

Given the historical accident that placed Victory City’s publication just a few months after its author, Salman Rushdie, and his interviewer, Henry Reese, were stabbed on stage by an American-born assailant of Lebanese descent, it was inevitable that this statement would be read as a writer’s manifesto. And indeed Rushdie, whose sole exilic identity is that of a writer, has frequently claimed, with Theodor Adorno, that words are his true home, and his only citizenship is in the republic of letters. In India today, ruled by the proponents of a philosophy of hate of which Rushdie has himself been a victim, the story of Vijayanagara lends itself to being seen as a tragic Hindu-Muslim encounter. That the truth is far more complex than this, that indeed – as Jacques Derrida said – truth is plural, is what we learn from the imaginative energy of Rushdie’s novel. Victory City, where Rushdie has built a city of words, is a triumph: a great novel, worthy to be set beside his early achievements.

Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor of English (Emerita) at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. Her areas of specialization are English and European Renaissance and early modern studies, Indian cultural and literary history, modernism, urban studies, critical theory, cinema, sport, translation, and travel writing, and she has published extensively in these fields. Her most recent edited book is Religion and the City in India (London: Routledge, 2022). She has also led a European Union-funded International Collaborative Project (E-QUAL), a Leverhulme Trust International Partnership, a UGC-UKIERI Project and other international research projects on behalf of her university.



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, May 2). City of Words. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/10snp

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