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‘Words are the only victors’: Review Victory City by Salman Rushdie

Victory City by Salman Rushdie | In this book, the author, took up the task to tell the story of an empire that lasted almost 250 years.

By Rajeev Tyagi
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Review Victory City by Salman Rushdie

Victory City by Salman Rushdie | In this book, the author, took up the task to tell the story of an empire that lasted almost 250 years. He has done this before, in Midnight’s Children. In that book, he told the story of India, post-independence, in merely 600-odd pages. 

‘Victory City’, is a fictional retelling of the history of the Vijayanagar empire from the 14th or 16th century. Basically, an empire’s rise and fall. Vijayanagar was South India’s one of the most prosperous empires. They have been credited with brilliant architecture, and have a rich history of art, literature, theatre, and more. One of the rulers, Krishnadeva Raya sounds like a similar name, heard in the context of Tenali Rama. That was the picture I had of the empire: happy, prosperous, lively. But, there were ups and downs. 

The Truth

Our protagonist, Pampa Kampana is the mystical composer of magnum opus i.e. Jayaparajaya. This is an epic of 24,000 verses in Sanskrit and tells the story of the ‘Bisnaga’ Empire. At an early age, she watched her mother burn in a funeral pyre. Post this, Pampa is determined to create a world where everyone is equal, and women aren’t seen in relation to men. 

‘For the rest of her life Pampa Kampana, who shared a name with the river on whose banks all this happened, would carry the scent of her mother’s burning flesh in her nostrils. ‘

This is also the time of the ‘other’ religion rising around the empire. In the empire, foreigners visit for leisure, experience, and trade. At a point, there is another empire rising: Zafarabad, the city of victory. Here, the author mirrors the two. After the exile of the ‘Pampa Kampana’, ‘Bisnaga’ has turned into an extremist theocratic state, quite like Zafarabad. Both states are deprived of art, culture, and even basic rights. While telling a story of the 14th century, the book too becomes a reflection of the present today. 

The story which the author tells us is of a kingdom that fails time, and again to live up to its own expectations, quite like our narrator Pampa Kampana. There are ambitions of expansion of the empire, for the empire to be peaceful, for it to be pluralistic, and all of them fall short. And, the reasons are numerous. Mostly, they start at the top. 

"Bisnaga were filled with a mixture of fear and joy, as men and women are when the miraculous crosses the frog-tier from the world of gods and enters the everyday, revealing to women and men that that frontier is not impenetrable, that the miraculous and the everyday are two halves of a single whole, and that we ourselves are the gods we seek to worship, and capable of mighty deeds."

There is a lot of telling and re-telling of you. Sometimes Pampa Kampana whispers history to the citizens of ‘Bisnaga’. Sometimes, the king proclaims to remove certain unwanted parts from the Empire’s narrative. Then, what remains? There is also a question of, where does it end? This ends with a realization that all wars, defeats, exile, and victory, and nothing more than words. As mentioned before, it is an ambitious book. There are moments where the story digresses from plots, and creates a few sub-plots. There are parts of the narrative that are managed from the surface itself, particularly the period of exile. Maybe, that’s the nature of the book presenting the convenient nature of written history.


Rushdie’s books have a great association with names. The author, in almost all his books, invests a fair bit of time in explaining the meaning behind the names, and why that matters in context to the book. This is sometimes tiring but mostly amusing. The names are fairly unique too. Like, Iskander Harappa and General Raza Hyder in Shame. Or, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, from The Satanic Verses to name a few. There are side characters too, with similar treatment.

Here, there are two brothers Hukka and Bukka. This seems like a wordplay, but it is not. They existed in history. They established the above-mentioned ‘Bisnaga' empire. Another example, one of the rulers of Vijayanagar ‘Krishnadeva Raya’. The author breaks down his character traits by comparing him with Lord Krishna. And, ‘Raya’ is a twisted version of Raja itself.  In another instance, the city in the book is primarily called ‘Victory City’, but later is referred to as ‘Bisnaga’. I’ll let you discover the ‘why’.

Hence, there is great emphasis on words, and meaning. Sometimes, the meaning of a word won’t be absolute. It might change with time, with people, and even with geography. But, amidst all that, words survive the test of time, in this way or that.

‘Words are the only victors’


This would be the book I’d suggest if someone wants to start reading Salman Rushdie. The book somehow is very Rushdie-like, and yet it is not. The general criticism of people who are reading Rushdie is how difficult is the vocabulary. Sometimes even pretentious, they say. The sentence formation, and the complexity of thought, add to the reluctance of reading the author. But, this novel is fairly simple, and comprehensive with straightforward sentences.

There is a relationship that I share with his fondness for storytelling. His intentions to evaluate, and re-evaluate the notions of storytelling are tremendous. Here too he does that, he takes a chapter from history and blends it in with magic, folklore, and fiction. Then, what remains of history really, just someone telling you the ‘truth’?

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