Book Review: In Custody, by Anita Desai

Posted on March 30, 2010

Anushri Mondal:

The novel initiates with an air of gloom hung over in the atmosphere of Mirpore, the small village-ish town giving shelter and occupation to the novel’s protagonist, Deven. Deven is a simple professor of a college in the department of Hindi, a department that carried the capacity of high literature but, presently lies, almost in a dilapidated condition, firstly, due to the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the students to master the subject-a subject that had little or no value in the job market and secondly, due to the composition of the town itself, a town of the tea wallahs and the truck drivers, in short inhabited by a class of people that form a distant part in the desire to grasp the beauties of philosohy, art and poetry.

Into this dismal world , comes a ray of hope in the form of his childhood friend and companion, Murad. Murad, is the editor of a Urdu magazine that aims to publish long lost unpublished pieces of poems of high artistic value of the once famous, decrepit poet Nur Shahjenahabad. Deven being an Urdu lover leaps in joy as Murad gives him the opportunity to interview the poet, something that he had wished since the time he relished the penmanship of Urdu poets and novelists.

The twist in the tale occurs when he finds how the life of Nur whom he considered as the epitome of reverence and regard,the God of Urdu poetry, is fraught with misery and poverty. Not only poverty in the sense of the lack of material goods but the poverty of the mind, the psyche. He is not only plagued by ill-health but also by his surroundings. The competition between his two wives, the noise and chaos of the fanatics, and the absence of decorum all combined create a distorted atmosphere, an unaesthetic ambience.

It’s Deven who gets entangled in the innumerable chains of difficulties surmounting Nur in the process of his interview. The interview turns out to be less of an oration of his lost poetry and more a revelry comprsing rum, kebabs, biryani and gluttunous talks combined with an inefficient assistant and a second hand tape recorder meant to record Nur’s voice, in an attempt to make the work easier (as copying his words by hand would have been cumbersome). All this leads up to dismal failure, making him shell out money on food, on room rent,on bribing his first wife to fix up the appointment, followed by Nur’s letter back in Mirpore about his intention to visit Mecca and to inform about his cataract operation.The whole novel portrays a descending trajectory of Deven and the rise of miseries coupled with misfortunes.

The novel questions the meaning of friendship that stands on selfishness and insensitivity as observed by Deven’s relationship with Murad, the bonds of marraige mirrored in Deven’s complascent behaviour towards his wife and the educatiuonal system of the nation where students with scientific backgrounds are meant for the luxuries of life whereas those with a knack for humanities are shown to rot in dingy classrooms. This fact is also revealed in the way in which Deven’s hindi students take technical classes outside in order to get employment, giving least importance to the learning of the subject within the college premises. This is a reflection of the fact that the art, culture, heritage and history of the country lies threatened in front of the emerging technological boom of the globe.

The novel can be regarded as an optmistic tale of Deven and Nur inspite of the repeated pessimisms hovering in their lives. This is because Nur at the end finds himself a custodian to breathe to him his life as it actually is and Deven gets the opportunity to take the custody of the divine poet whom he almost worshiped. This is an achievement in itself .Composed by Anita Desai, the novel is a portrait of human lives as it exists in their own exclusive circumstances, of the hypocrisy and pretension lying within the human spirit, of the difference between the town and the city life, of human helplessness and oppression on the road to ones aspirations.