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Saturday, December 03 2022
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‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

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Meek and self-effacing, Deven is resigned to his life as a lecturer in an obscure college in the dusty, shapeless town of Mirpore. When, unexpectedly, an old friend, Murad, invites him to go to Delhi to interview the greatest living Urdu Poet, Deven sees a chance both to achieve fame and to fulfill his dreams. It is far too late to turn back when Deven realizes that his dream is turning into a disaster. For Nur, is not the ascetic magical genius of Deven’s imaginings, but a weak, grasping old man whose creative days are long since over.

anitadesaiThis book was shortlisted for the “Booker Prize”. Two of her earlier novels were shortlisted also for the coveted “Booker” prize but did not make it to the top. However, her daughter Kiran Desai, who is equally adept at writing absorbing tales, won the coveted 50,000-Pound Sterling Booker Prize in the year 2006 for her book “The Inheritance of the Loss”.

Let me summarise the characters of the Novel:

Deven:

He is a lecturer, teaching Hindi, in the Lala Ram Lal College in Mirpore.  He lives in a small house with his wife Sarla and 5-year-old son Manu. Sarla is from Delhi and she had lofty dreams, which remained unfulfilled after marriage. Murad, his friend, urges him to get an interview and recording of a few gazals from the famous Urdu Poet Nur. Although Deven teaches in the Hindi, he still loves exploring the wonders of Urdu poetry and is given the chance, “to see Nur, his hero and talk to him”. As soon as Deven arrives at Nur-Sahib’s flat, he feels “a most tide of jubilation rise and an increase inside at being recognized, named and invited into the presence of a man so clearly a hero”. This represents his first ride “up” on the roller-coaster story-line as he experienced anticipation for the first time in his dull life.

During his first visit to Delhi Chandni Chowk area to meet Poet Nur, his excitement and euphoria were intense, but it suddenly came to an end when he finally meets Nur. When Deven explains the proposal to interview him for his contribution to the special issue on Urdu poetry, Nur says that Urdu is a dead language and that there is no use in writing the article.

Sarla and Manu are two different symbols in Deven’s roller-coaster life. Their world is filled with crushed dreams, and aspirations. He understood her because they were both victims, but this did not bring about any solidarity between the two for they believed “two victims sought to avoid each other, not yoke together joint disappointments”. She accused him tacitly, so he spoke abusively to Sarla “hurling away dishes not cooked to his liking, bawl uncontrollably if meals were not ready when he wanted them or their small son was noisy or unwashed”. This was an effort to rebel against her disappointment and avenge her for accommodating it.

During Deven’s second visit to Nur, he realized that his role in life has changed from being an ordinary college teacher to the guardian (In Custody) of Nur’s poetry. However, there were barriers in the way of Deven’s fulfilling these dreams, such as his family, his job and Nur’s wife Imtiaz Begum. He overcame these with his skills and a little help from Nur’s first wife. Although Deven felt during the first interview, that he “[could not] lose [his] job, [his] salary, [his] family” but soon realizes “being trapped like an animal” was not worth it. Deven realized that Nur’s genius and art brought about the transformation in his life. It would banish “the hitherto entirely static and stagnant backwaters of his existence”.

He had a new role in life to preserve Nur’s poetry. His family was not going to stand in the way of Deven’s ambition. Nur’s second wife, Imtiaz Begum was an obstacle in Deven’s roller-coaster journey. Deven thought that the unexpected friendship with Nur would open the door of his Captive life. However, a closer familiarity with the poet proved what he thought of as the wider world was just an illusion. He would only “blunder into another cage inhabited by some other trapped animal”. Deven thought that meeting Nur would be one of the most influential events in his life but finds out that they both were in similar situations where both their marriages kept them confined in a cage. Just like Deven, is imprisoned in a cage because of his family and job, Nur had been confined from his obnoxious wife, Imtiaz. Soon after, Deven discovers another rising on his rollercoaster adventure when he encounters Nur’s first wife who believes “[he should not] let [Imtiaz] stop [him]” from interviewing Nur. She provided Deven and Nur with some solitude by relocating Nur in another building. Thus the interview would be hidden from Imtiaz Begum. There he could gather the necessary information for his interview tape. Obstacles such as his family, job and Imtiaz Begum were in the way of “the dear shining horizon” his dream. Deven conquered them with determination and with the help from Nur’s old first wife.

Although Deven got support from Nur’s first wife, debt issues as well as technical difficulties were factors that affected the interview with Nur. Deven soon experiences the harshest epiphany of his journey; that life has its challenges and calamities and the only way to live through them is fighting back. This also marked the end of Deven’s roller-coaster adventure. Although Nur’s first wife had offered help, she wanted a payment. She asked Deven “are poets’ families to starve while you and your kind from the colleges feast?” Deven was hesitant in continuing the interview with Nur because of the fee. However, decides he needs to finish what he had started. Since he was experiencing debt problems of his own, he had borrowed the money from Lala Ram Lal College from their funds.

During the interview, distractions and chatter had disrupted the interviewing process. Chiku, Deven’s technical assistant “fumbled with the machine and [did not] take any of [Nur’s verses or memoirs] down”. The interview failed to live up to Deven and the college’s expectations. In fact, the tape recording did not have Nur’s poetry and was mainly on worthless conversations that went on during the interview. Deven fails in his attempt to redeem himself. This is because he failed to get the tape with academic value content.

As a repercussion, his marriage may fail and his relationships with his colleagues cut off. When the board members get the tape, they would accuse Deven as having cheated the money of the college funds. In addition, because of that, he fears for his censure or dismissal of his occupation. This bring him down, Sarla and Manu would fall too because he would not be able to support them. Thus Sarla and Manu would be forced to return to her parent’s house while he paid off their accumulated debts. This would tarnish in the process his son’s view of him even more when he tried to patch things up.

With all the debt issue Deven endured, he finally realizes life has its tragedies and challenges and the only way to survive this cruel world is if “he [runs] to meet them”. He finally sees that structure and form is what is missing in his life and expected “thorns” to lie ahead. Deven was finally ready to hop off the generic roller-coaster life and live by his own pattern.

This also marked a rebirth in Deven’s life. Deven declines Murad’s offer of paying off his debts for sole rights of Nur’s interview tape as he finally stands up for himself, which he was not able to in the beginning of the novel. Deven’s role in life altered as well to being an ordinary Hindi teacher to the “custodian of Nur’s genius”. He realized that friendship with Nur still existed and that “[their] alliance could be considered an unendurable burden—or else a shining honour”. Despite having, a tape filled with disastrous memories and hardships, Deven felt he had a duty to preserve it in custody At the end of Deven’s roller-coaster adventure expedition, he finally realizes hardships and anguishes will always be a part of life and he has accepted these challenges.

Sarla:

Sarla, Deven’s wife, represents disenchantment in his life. When Deven finally arrives home from his first crushed interview with Nur, he was afraid, “she would teach him not to venture out of the familiar, safe dustbin of their world into the perilous world of night time bacchanalia, revelry and melodrama”. Sarla does not want Deven to step out of his mundane life to do anything fun or out of the ordinary when such things are unavailable to her. Deven’s mother and aunts had arranged his marriage to Sarla. They failed to acknowledge that Sarla had dreams of her own. She dreamt the celluloid dream of marriage: “stepping out of a car with plastic shopping bag full of groceries filling them into the gleaming fridge, rushing to the phone placed on a lace doily on a three legged table…behind a flowered curtain”. She dreamed for an ideal American family life; essentially a perfect married life; sheer bliss. Yet having been married into the academic profession and moving to a small town outside Delhi, her dreams never came true and led her to embitterment.

Manu:

Deven’s son, Manu, represents another “up” in his roller-coaster journey. When Deven and Manu went for an evening walk to bond as father and son, Deven experienced another important epiphany Manu made him realize. For once, he did not resent his circumstances as “the first desolation at his loss was being gradually filled [that] evening with the realization it has that loss had simplified his existence” because he knew how to deal emptiness for he was used to it. This allowed him to conveniently “escape from complexities with which he would not have known how to contend” for he is afraid of major change and what impact it may have on his life. Deven perceives Sarla is as being a massive downfall in his roller-coaster ride and Manu as an uprising in his journey.

Nur:

The famed Urdu poet Nur is old and ill. His verses were popular and appreciated in Malaysia, Sweden, Russia, Iran and Iraq. He has two wives and lives in Chandni Chowk, Delhi.

Murad:

He is the son of a wealthy carpet dealer in Delhi. He is the editor of a magazine in which Murad had contributed but not paid for. He is planning a special issue on Urdu poetry. He wants Deven to travel to Delhi and meet Nur. He should get poetry from Nur and send it to Murad for publishing in the Special Edition of the Magazine.

Overall, it is a difficult to read book, gloomy in nature and confusing at times. I wish the author had reproduced some nice Urdu poetry for us to enjoy.

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