Nearly six months after he was brutally stabbed in the neck and torso at an event in New York in August last year, Salman Rushdie returns to the literary firmament with a sanguinely praised novel of magic realism ‘Victory City’.
Going by the early notices, the novel seems to vibrate with Rushdie’s familiar vividity of unbridled imagination where the protagonist is named Pampa Kampana, the last name literally meaning vibration in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.
The novel’s publicity blurb describes it as “The epic tale of a woman who breathes a fantastical empire into existence, only to be consumed by it over the centuries–from the transcendent imagination of” Rushdie.
“In the wake of an unimportant battle between two long-forgotten kingdoms in fourteenth-century southern India, a nine-year-old girl has a divine encounter that will change the course of history. After witnessing the death of her mother, the grief-stricken Pampa Kampana becomes a vessel for her namesake, the goddess Pampa, who begins to speak out of the girl’s mouth. Granting her powers beyond Pampa Kampana’s comprehension, the goddess tells her that she will be instrumental in the rise of a great city called Bisnaga–“victory city”–the wonder of the world.
Over the next 250 years, Pampa Kampana’s life becomes deeply interwoven with Bisnaga’s, from its literal sowing from a bag of magic seeds to its tragic ruination in the most human of ways: the hubris of those in power. Whispering Bisnaga and its citizens into existence, Pampa Kampana attempts to make good on the task that the goddess set for her: to give women equal agency in a patriarchal world. But all stories have a way of getting away from their creator, and Bisnaga is no exception. As years pass, rulers come and go, battles are won and lost, and allegiances shift, the very fabric of Bisnaga becomes an ever more complex tapestry–with Pampa Kampana at its center,” it says.
I am not clear if any or much of the novel was conceived and written in the aftermath of the near fatal attack on him allegedly by 24-year-old Hadi Matar on August 12, 2022, at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Ironically, the event was about giving asylum to exiled writers.
In the days following the assassination attempt, apparently triggered by the still simmering fatwa put on him by the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, there were worries that either Rushdie may not survive and if he did, he would do so significantly incapacitated. However, going by his first interview post-attack in the New Yorker suggests that he has made a remarkable recovery albeit with a lost vision in his right eye.
The irony of the fatwa being timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day was not lost on many then although there is nothing to suggest that the Ayatollah Khomeini deliberately planned it that way. In the nearly three and half decades since, the threat to Rushdie’s life seemed to have almost gone, especially after he settled down in New York, leaving London behind. However, the fact that Matar attacked him just six months ago shows that there is really no expiry on hatred and death woven into a fatwa.
On hearing about the terrible stabbing attack Rushdie last year, my mind instantly traveled back to February 24, 1989 when rioting broke out in Bombay against his book ‘The Satanic Verses’.
It was barely 10 days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, issued a fatwa against Rushdie, essentially offering a supari (in the Bombay underworld’s parlance) on his head. Supari, incidentally, is like a contract for killing someone.
Khomeini offered a generous bounty then which had grown to $3.3 million as of 2012. Although the fatwa has seemingly lost much of its momentum after over three decades of its issuance, going by what happened to Rushdie, its lethality has not waned at all.
“I’m lucky,” Rushdie David Remnick, his friend and the editor New Yorker, in the interview published on Monday. “What I really want to say is that my main overwhelming feeling is gratitude.” The 75-year-old author also said he blamed Matar and not his security or the event organizer.
“I’ve tried very hard over these years to avoid recrimination and bitterness,” Rushdie said. “I just think it’s not a good look. One of the ways I’ve dealt with this whole thing is to look forward and not backwards. What happens tomorrow is more important than what happened yesterday.”
The New Yorker interview is accompanied by a photograph of by Richard Burbridge in which Rushdie has a touch of the Gothic with one dark glass in his spectacles making him look like a retired pirate still vibrating with menace.
As is his wont, Rushdie joked about the picture on his Twitter handle saying, “The photo in @NewYorker is dramatic and powerful but this, more prosaically, is what I actually look like.” He posted a picture of himself that looks benign in an avuncular sort of way.
‘Victory City’, which I am yet to read, appears to signal the return of Rushdie’s fabled and fevered magic realist imagination where a fantastic world is created with joy and vigor. The reviews of the novel have been uniformly and resoundingly high praise.
If there ever were a perfect literary candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, it would be Salman Rushdie this year.