Anita Desai’s In Custody: Author’s Background, Background to the Text and Synopsis

Author’s Background: Anita Desai is currently a writer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  She was born in 1937 in India at a place called Mussoorie. Her mother was German and her father was a Bangali businessman. She grew up in India and could speak Hindi, German, Urdu and English. She is said to have started writing at age 7 and was a published writer at age 9.

Desai attended Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School in Delhi and had her college education at the University of Delhi, where she earned her degree in English literature in 1957. She married Ashvin Desai in 1957. She has four children, one of whom is also an award-winning author.

Among the works written by Desai are Cry The Peacock (1963), Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), Fasting, Feasting (1994) and The Zigzag Way (2004).

Background to the Novel: India gained Independence from the British in 1947. With this independence came the partitioning of the young nation along mostly religio-political lines into two countries – India and Pakistan. India practises Hinduism while the Pakistanis are mostly Muslims. This division did not only lead to displacement of people, it also affected other aspects of life, including personal and interpersonal relationships and language. There was a deep-seated suspicion between Hindus and Muslims following the violent aftermath of the independence. Marginalisation and victimisation were common, and individuals had no option than to adapt in order to survive, even if it means denying one’s identity and dreams. In the novel, for instance, Deven Sharma, is forced by survival instincts to study and teach Hindi, when actually he would have loved to teach Urdu. But he knows that his family would likely starve if he does that. In the novel, it is illustrated that the loss of language is synonymous with the loss of identity. This is seen in how Deven’s life lacks meaning because he is speaking and teaching Hindi, the official language of India, instead of his own language, which is Urdu. This situation also applies to Nur, the great Urdu poet, depicted in the novel. The novel illustrates how politics affects the individual and how language is central to one’s identity and self-worth.

Synopsis of the Novel

Chapter 1: Published in 1984, Anita Desai’s In Custody is a novel of identity and meaning at personal and collective levels. The novel is organised in eleven chapters. Its narrative viewpoint is a combination of the omniscient narrator and stream of consciousness. The narrator follows Deven Sharma throughout his journey to find identity and meaning in life. The story begins with Murad visiting his longtime, youthful and school-days friend, Deven Sharma, who is now a college teacher in Mirpore. The novel has an epigraph, which is a quote from William Wordsworth’s Rob Roy’s Grave. It states: ‘They should take who have the power/And they should keep who can’.

Murad has visited his friend Deven at the university where he teaches Hindi. Murad is seen teasing his friend about him still being a two-cigarette man, which draws attention to his days in the university as a poor undergraduate. In contrast, Murad is depicted as the son of a wealthy Kasmiri carpet dealer in Delhi. Murad is currently an Urdu poetry magazine editor and has come to ask Deven to interview Nur, the great Urdu poet, so that his ideas can be featured in the special issue of the magazine that is forthcoming. Deven has been contributing poems and reviews for the magazine without being paid by Murad. He now wonders if Murad has come all the way from Delhi to Mirpore to pay him.  It is obvious that Murad’s visit makes Deven uncomfortable because it reminds him of his inferiority, poverty and inadequacies in life. Some of the comments made by Murad are intended to humiliate him by reminding him of his past life in the university in order to emphasise that nothing has really changed for him. He is still a two-cigarette man.

Deven insists on teaching his class that day, as it is Monday and it is his last class, even though Murad tries to persuade him to ditch the class as a way of appreciating his having to travel a long distance to see him. Murad also insists on being taken out for lunch and a drink. Of course, this would put a hole in Deven’s pocket as it is month end and he has given the last of his money to his wife, Sarla, for housekeeping.

Murad also tries to make Deven guilty for not readily offering his friend hospitality. But Deven suspects that there is more to Murad’s visit than meets the eye, since he knows Murad to be a selfish person who doesn’t do anything except there is something to gain out of it. Deven recalls their school days when Murad was a spoilt rich boy with money to sponsor cinema shows and cigarettes, while Deven was a poor widow’s son whom Murad bribed or coerce to do anything he wanted done for him.

Deven asks Murad to wait for him in the canteen until he is through with his class. But it is obvious that Murad’s visit has already unsettled him. He finds it difficult to concentrate.

Deven is portrayed as a failed teacher, one who cannot command the attention of his students. Thus, he constantly looks away from the expression of boredom, amusement, insolence and defiance by his students; a form of escapism.

After the class, Deven takes his friend to a rundown restaurant where Murad makes derogatory remarks about everything in the restaurant. Deven admits to himself that he could not afford to take Murad to the expensive restaurants like Kwality and Gaylord, the two best restaurants in the area. But he makes excuses to Murad that Mirpore was only a village and so he shouldn’t expect more.

While they eat potato curry and fried puris at the Jaimy-bazaar eating house, Murad begins to sympathise with Deven by decrying the low pay of lecturers. It is here revealed that Urdu is now a remote dialect in India. But it is obvious that the language had a more glorious past; possibly eclipsed by political circumstances and historical forces in society.

When Deven indirectly mentions the money that Murad owes him, Murad gets angry and begins to talk of how difficult it is to run a magazine, especially one written in a language that many people do not read again. He calls Hindi ‘that vegetarian monster’. Apparently, Hindi is the language that has overshadowed Urdu. It is also apparent that Murad hates Hindi with passion. He sees it as the language of the peasants. Urdu is the language of royalty, according to Murad.

However, it should be noted that Deven teaches Hindi in the University and it is apparent that he only does that in order to survive. His true passion is Urdu, which is why he begs Murad to keep the journal (magazine) alive so that the language would not die. It is during this conversation that Nur comes up. Murad tells Deven why he does not need poems anymore for the journal, as many people now write poems including Nur. Murad tells Deven that Nur is finished because he can no longer write new poems; that he keeps sending him excerpts from his old collections.

Nur is the world-acclaimed star of Urdu poetry. He is even being considered for the Nobel Prize.  Murad wants to do a special edition of his magazine that features Nur, but he wants Deven to undertake the venture, to do the interview. This is an unbelievable opportunity for Deven. He is overtaken with joy and excitement. Deven had once written a monograph on Nur. He believes that his dreams will finally come to fulfilment. He is to visit Nur in Chandni Chowk, where the great poet lives.

However, it is apparent that Murad is using Deven once again, exploiting Deven’s naivety and love for Urdu poetry to further his own ambition of publishing a good journal.

#Watch out for more analysis#

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