In Custody By Anita Desai

    There aren't really specific words to describe this book's power. On the surface of it Anita Desai's work can be seen as overwrought, a tad pretentious, and even unsatisfying as to how it concludes. Additionally, Desai has, at least in this work, the somewhat dubious distinction of writing some of the most unpleasant characters in (relatively) recent fiction.

    However under this scrim, this veneer of unpleasantness, there's a powerful mind presenting a challenging work. Maybe I've become too complacent in recent years. Though even after reading Calvino's If on a winter's night... I felt, at the bare minimum, slightly confident in my ability to consume a work of complexity. But maybe that was because Calvino's work was more a feat of structural dexterity. Hell, even Dostoyevsky in his Notes on the Underground was easier to take in. This is not to say that Desai is a less skilled writer than the aforementioned or that the pair are in anyway simplistic writers. It's just that what Desai gives us is neither a Byzantine riddle nor a psychological labyrinth; her book is instead an elegant work of craft showcasing a group of people shouldering the burden of their own very human weaknesses and that of the history of a much conflicted and complicated nation.

    This is a definite recommendation to anyone though be warned that the picture of India here is not that of the affluent Western tourist. There is nothing kitsch or remotely stereotypical. It's an honest and bracing narrative encompassing happiness, despair, success, failure, and the nature and importance of art's necessary immortality to humanity.

    Anita Desai A weak-willed, poorly paid intellectual, Deven, gets put upon by almost everybody.

    Well, up to a certain extent. There are moments, admittedly rare, when Deven looks as though he might assert himself, but generally he does not.

    Deven is a teacher of Hindi in a small college in Mirpore, a dusty rural town not far from Delhi. The school has a small Urdu department, the result of a bequest from a minor Muslim noble, forced to flee to the quite backwater, when Delhi became too difficult, at the time of Partition. At the behest of Murad, his pompous and pampered friend from school, Deven journeys to Delhi to interview the famous Urdu poet Nur. Deven finds the aged legend to be bibulous, avaricious and greedy, surrounded by shallow hangers on more interested in drinking and partying at the old man’s expense than yearning for his lyricism. Admittedly Nur is much diminished - the rare times he spouts his own poems they are from his distant youthful past. He spends more time babbling about the biryani he wants for lunch. Any hopes Deven has for an interview suitable for Murad’s literary magazine are dashed in this noisy shambolic house, with two wives in place, the first illiterate but canny, the second ambitious for her own fame and fortune as a performer and poet.

    Deven then tries to make a recorded interview, but this is a disaster: the purchase and operation of the machine is farcical and the subject poet is irresponsible and inconsiderate.

    At home, Deven fares no better; his wife Sarla’s aspirations are focussed dangerously upon household goods:

    ‘She had dared to aspire towards a telephone, a refrigerator, even a car.’ (p67).

    Others have written impressively about this story and its implications. I shall focus on the title of the tale, and what ‘In Custody’ might mean.

    In no formal sense are any of the characters incarcerated. However, many are imprisoned metaphorically: most obviously Deven himself, but also his wife, his friend Murad and teaching colleagues especially Mr Siddiqui. The poet Nur and his wives are in custody as well.

    More obliquely, the language itself, Urdu, may well be imprisoned. It is the main language of a neighbouring nation, with whom relations have been troubled, at best. The language has become marginalised in independent India.

    Deven is in the most complex custody: constrained by a loveless marriage; teaching Hindi when his true calling is Urdu; but most profoundly he is limited by his own timidity and inertia. And his technological ineptitude. Sarla is locked into a life where she has no affinity with her intellectual husband who is low in the pecking order and poorly rewarded financially.

    The poet Nur is in custody in several ways; a prisoner of his earlier fame; his loss of creativity, compromised by the need for money - poetry is never very lucrative in most cultures – Nur seeks to turn every opportunity into money or food and drink. Nur is even a more of a prisoner of his Urdu language than Deven.

    Murad is a prisoner of his struggling literary magazine and his own laziness, a result, or by-product of his opportunities arising solely out of his father’s largesse.

    So, what in the end does ‘in custody’ mean? To whom does it refer? I think it means that all of us are constrained or limited by the circumstances we find ourselves in, or are of our own making.

    The ending is open to speculation – does Deven show signs of more resolve, more backbone or do we expect him to continue as we have seen hitherto? My feeling is that he will not change.

    My favourite moment I have saved till last because I’d like to end on an upbeat note: it’s when Deven takes his boy for a walk through the town and talks with him affectionately rather than critically: the boy is at first wary and puzzled, then starts to relax. The matter of fact exchanges constitute a rare moment of happiness in a story otherwise full of dissatisfaction and friction. I quote it at some length because it is rather beautiful. Deven has just looked at his son’s grubby homework books:
    'Rising from his chair, he stammered, “Let us go for as walk. Come Manu, come and walk with me.” He put out his hand blindly and the boy cautiously inserted one finger into his father’s fist and felt it tighten. Then they went down the steps and through the gate on to the road, the mother in the house watching in astonishment and coming as close to that mother in the glossy magazine as she was ever likely to come.

    Deven and the boy walked down the road between the small yellow stucco houses that belonged to the same grade of lowly paid employees as he did and which were all waiting for a coat of paint some day when the funds were collected for such an unlikely project.’

    Deven and Manu walk past pumpkin vines, broken furniture, scratching chickens and blaring radios, then…
    ‘Deven breathed it all in, finding it reassuring. For once he did not resent his 'circumstances'. Their meanness was transformed for him by his new experience and the still raw wounds that it had left. Also by the feel of his son’s thumb enclosed within his fist. He walked along with a light step, breathing in the close stuffy air of the small colony…He told himself how lucky he was to have exchanged the dangers of Nur’s poetry for the undemanding chatter of a child. The boy was telling one of his monotonous stories of school life that he often prattled to his parents, only they never listened. Now Deven looked down at the top of his head and smiled when Manu told him, “My teacher, he has hair growing out of his ears. Why does hair grow in his ears, Papa? He puts his pencil behind his ear – like this – “ Deven laughed and swung the boy’s hand …He [Manu] rushed along at his father’s side instead of dragging behind as was more usual with him. The boy, who was often querulous with hunger and sleep by the time Deven came back from work, seemed quite unlike the protesting, whining creature he usually was; he too seemed to find something pleasant and acceptable in the uncommon experience of a walk with his father.’
    (pp71-72). Anita Desai I find this quote particularly relevant in order to encapsulate the book's spirit:
    What is this all for? What is this about? Anita Desai It's a well written story that dwells on the theme of 'existential crisis', but I felt much anguish at the characters' self pitying, helpless nature that it became arduous to finish it. Anita Desai This story was billed as humorous, but I found it to be depressing at best. The only good part about it was that I could look at the story and go alright, my life sucks, but it's not as bad as Deven's. I did finish the book and in some ways enjoyed it, but it's a book that leaves you feeling depressed afterward and not in a profound way.

    I'm glad I read it, but it's not a book I ever want to read again. Anita Desai

    Touching and wonderfully funny, In Custody is woven around the yearnings and calamities of a small town scholar in the north of India. An impoverished college lecturer, Deven, sees a way to escape from the meanness of his daily life when he is asked to interview India’s greatest Urdu poet, Nur – a project that can only end in disaster. In Custody

    I remember reading this book at the start of my undergraduate studies six years ago, and finding the writing to be awkwardly wanting, a strange blend of stunted and overtly descriptive at the same time. Revisiting it again today on a train journey from one crumbling stronghold of Urdu poetry to another made me realise that Desai's prose is, in fact, a superior linguistic imitation of the landscapes that she so masterfully evokes for the reader's eyes: it carries in each line the stifling heat and dusty decrepitude of the fictional Mirpore and the all-too-real lanes of Old Delhi in summertime, mimicking the sticky sense of restlessness they educe without taking it on as its own as I'd once thought. If the writing seems studded with uneasy bleakness like beads of condensation on a cold bottle it is only because it draws it from the plot that it seeks to serve, and the plot of In Custody is indeed an enveloping force of despondency as threateningly pregnant as a humid afternoon in late July.

    The story revolves around Deven, a lifelong lover of Urdu poetry forced by circumstances to earn his living as a temporary lecturer in Hindi literature at a small-town college in North India. When Deven is approached by childhood 'friend' and small-time magazine editor Murad to interview the legendary Urdu poet Nur, he convinces himself that this mission to record the poet's light will bring him out of the stagnant backwaters of his life. However, his path is littered with hardship and deceit, and what awaits him is the realisation that

    He had accepted the gift of Nur's poetry and that meant he was custodian of Nur's very soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure.
    In writing of Deven's encounter with this soul and spirit, Desai addresses the rapid decline of the once-rich Urdu language and cultural tradition in post-partition India and its slow death at the feet of the newly tyrannous Hindi (ironically, this same fate is one that befalls Hindi, and indeed, other Indian languages today as they are being slapped into disuse by the globalising hand of English). She also paints a searingly true picture of the travails, aspirations, and grit of provincial life in the country a few decades past. Hers is a canvas on which daily concerns of everyman are painted and explored on the same plane as grander questions of cultural hegemony on the one hand, and pragmatism and the demise of the humanities on the other.

    Though this is less pronounced, In Custody also offers a brilliant study of gender and patriarchal power dynamics, be it in Deven's neglect of his wife Sarla; the poet Nur's sense of insecurity regarding the intellectual powers of his second wife, Imtiaz Begum; and even the bitter, domestic competitiveness harboured by Nur's first wife, Safiya. While all of these characters—and any others in the book—are unlikeable, they are also realistic and undeniably, if also uninspiringly, human.

    This latter fact is conceivably what makes this book so difficult to read at times—its fervent honesty about the state of things dashes most hopes and marks the narrative as unwaveringly dreary, and there is not beauty enough (in the world, and not just this novel) to mask or make up for it. As a reader, I was afraid to pursue this morosity further, and got the sense that Desai felt the same. Perhaps a little more courage from Desai—or Deven—would have made this tale less...exhausting. As things are, those uneasy drops run and collect in a puddle at the foot of the narrative, at that imagined boundary between fresh and stale.

    3.5 stars Anita Desai “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

    It is befitting to quote Rumi to introduce the middle-aged protagonist of this book who sends swirls of a bruised dream into the air even while chugging along life with a rusted body. Deven, a teacher in the small town of Mirpore, finds his humdrum walk thrown off guard when his college buddy, Murad, a cunning fox and an accidental two-penny publisher, flummoxes him into interviewing Nur, a legendary poet of yesteryear and Deven’s idol in youth. Overwhelmed by the awarding of a chance so rare and fulfilling, his fan-heart heaves wild beats, that eventually begins sending tremors of discord and dislocation across his family, friends, circle and beyond.

    His life suddenly becomes a series of road trips between Mirpore and Delhi, each carrying memories that ricochets off his present like belongings of irretrievable past.

    The allure of Desai’s narrative was in her understanding and expressing of the Indian hinterland – the soil colors, the vernacular currents, the domestic conversations, the middle class longings, the dreams as refuges and the inevitable, occasionally lame, humor to cap off a day. The chapters highlighting the struggles of a fallen star were the most splendid etchings of this work – Nur was a delight to watch; his idiosyncrasies, in his typical nawaabi style, drew angst and empathy in such equal measure that one was almost forced to stand up and tell the old man to pull down the curtains for his own good.
    “He realized that he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable.”
    Deven did well for the first half of the book in his dilettante’s avataar but his repeated histrionics and monochromatic ruminations reduced him to a wobbly caricature by the end of the book. The other characters of the book, belonging to Deven’s and Nur’s family, served the purpose of plain, used furniture; they filled the space but evoked no reaction.

    In the end, ‘In Custody’ managed to bind me till the climax, thanks to its refreshing premise, earthy language and grains of Urdu quotes. But it could not bind me any further; I left the theatre the moment the last page was enacted, without throwing a glance back. Anita Desai Another book borrowed from my parents, which means I have now read all three of the Anita Desai novels that made the Booker shortlist (the others being Clear Light of Day and Fasting, Feasting).

    The protagonist Deven works as a Hindi teacher in Mirpore, a small town near Delhi, who aspires to be an Urdu poet. His life is unrewarding, but he is offered a form of escape by a former college friend Murad, who runs an Urdu magazine in Delhi and enlists Deven's help to arrange an interview with a great Urdu poet Nur. Nur is now an old man, who drinks too much and spends much of his life hosting sycophants and hangers-on, and Deven's attempts to get him to remember his poetry are largely frustrated, giving the book a tragicomic tone.

    Another enjoyable read, but for me Clear Light of Day is still the best of the three. Anita Desai Before time crushes us into dust we must record our struggle against it. We must engrave our name in the sand before the wave comes to sweep it away and make it a part of the ocean
    He sifted through alternatives like torn pieces of grey paper ...


    I think the mellifluousness of prose was beautifully sparkling its aroma in the pages. This book quickens its pace with very promising start. The story of Deven tricked from his astute, dishonest friend, Murad (Even I know some people like Murad in my real life) to interview the God of Urdu Poetry, Nur, the person who is lurking on the border of senility, squashed between quarrels of his two wives, old times, alcoholic habits.

    Then as soon it crosses 100 pages, you will wait for Nur, you look through the openings from where will Nur appear in the story.
    It crosses nearly 150 pages (More than 60%, still where is Nur ?) ... Doldrums spread a mat, where Deven in his crazy fancies crave for Nur ... Then Nur appears with slight disposition and as soon it comes it goes in some pages ... And you will say, what is the point in stretching the plot like a rubber-band?

    But wait.
    Was this book was all about Nur? No! it was all about Deven. I asked myself a question.
    Q: who is favorite writer. Answer: Sir JM Coetzee, Sir Salman Rushie.

    And what if I get a chance to interview them and does my reaction will change if I come across something like whimsical personal life from them. Had I gone this far as Deven went for Nur; sacrificing my family life, social life, monetary life, and extent of endurance just to pay the debt that I awe to the writer. I mean this question kept me in very serious circle. And what about the writer who has dissolved his entire life just to lift others?

    What we read about a person, what we read from a person and what actually is the life of person.
    Do we admire person for his work, or do our admiration deflates if his life comes as different from what we thought of ?
    Then still is there any room for devotion ?
    So I changed the gear and started again reading this book not for Nur's arrival but Deven's portrayal.

    I re-gained my interest in book. And I also liked the way it was told in the book about corrosive state of literature is crippled more by heavy emphasis on Science.
    In India this is actually a truth, a very minute section respects for literature and which in turn is very incapable of earning. And how in India, Universities are inundated with bulk enrollments on Science streams ...

    As Sir Rushdie says in beginning of book ... it speaks so softly that it risks of being unheard.
    I agree with him.
    Anita Desai This is one of the few cases where I have watched the movie before reading the book. Having watched the amazing movie couple of years back and Anita Desai’s name raised my expectations really high.

    Deven is a Hindi lecturer, living a modest life in a small town. But nothing is okay in his life. His wife is unhappy with him, his students do not listen to him or respect him and all those around him take advantage of him. Shadowing all these is his reminiscence of his dreams of becoming a poet that he had to give up in order to bring in money for his wife and son. When he gets a chance to interview Nur, a relatively famous Urdu poet, his enthusiasm knows no bounds. But as always, nothing is simple in Deven’s life… Starting with a faulty recorder, things only go downhill as Deven tries to hold on to his enthusiasm for the language, poetry and this opportunity.

    Characters in this story have similar shades even though they have different background and Deven’s story really touches you. Throughout the story you wish that life would finally give him a break. You hope for a happy ending, at least for his sake right from the first half of the book. Nur is a character that again somehow will strike a sad chord in your heart. Deven’s wife is a character I could understand but not really sympathise with.

    From downright comical situations to the absurdities of Nur’s life to Deven’s own sad little life, the story flourishes with each stroke of life’s different colours. I admit that it is not a happy-go-lucky or fun book. It accentuates the failures of a man’s life and that makes the pace of the story feel a bit slow. Yet it was difficult for me to put it down. Frankly, this book is not for everyone. It is for more matured readers who is okay with reading a bit of heavy material, understanding that life is not all roses and petals and that most people outside the world of fiction have a lot of thorns to pick up in their lives. Even then, not all can get to the rosy petal part of their lives.

    This may not be Anita Desai’s best, at least to me, but it certainly lives up to her standard in prose. Loved it!
    Anita Desai

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