Anita Desai’s In Custody: Synopsis of Chapters Two and Three

Deven’s stay in Mirpore is described as a prison from which he has to escape as he leaves to track Nur Shahjehanabadi in Delhi. The authorial voice describes the people of Mirpore as petty tradesmen, not agriculturists. An attempt is made by the authorial voice to also reconstruct the history of the village. A nawab (a Muslim official) had built a mosque of marble and pink sandstone that has come to define the cultural existence of the people in Mirpore. The authorial voice also alludes to the mutiny of 1857, when the people of India rebelled against the British, who colonised India. There is also an allusion to the battle of Plassey which took place in 1757. It was fought between the troops of the British East India Company and the army of Siraj-ud-Daulah, who was the last of the nawabs of Bengal. The author appears to view human existence in terms of warfare and human condition as a result of the outcome of wars, whereby the losers become the victims and the victimised, and the winners become victors and the oppressors. This helps to explain the current situation in India in terms of the relationship between the Muslims and the Hindus, Indians and Pakistanis. India is depicted in the novel as a postcolonial nation, a conquered people, grappling with many historical maladies which are reflected in the personal and collective lives of the citizens and in their daily relationships.

The major religions described in the novel are Hinduism and Islam. The inhabitants of Mirpore are mostly Hindus and Muslims. Mirpore itself is described as an ancient town/village whose history goes far back in time. The author uses the religious buildings – temples, mosques and other relics – to exemplify this. Mirpore is also described as having no river, which explains why the people bathe mostly in tanks.

The two major religions, Islam and Hinduism, are seen existing side by side. Thus, the narrative voice is seen alternating in the description of their rites. First, the narrator describes the Moharram procession of Tazias. This is a Muslim rite in the first month of the Islamic calendar during which the Muslims hold a festival commemorating the death of the grandson of Mohammed. The narrative voice then goes on to talk about Holi, a Hindu festival which usually occurs at about the same time with Moharram procession. There are three religious groups in Mirpore, which, in the novel, is a microcosm of India. They are Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, in their order of spread, population and size of worshippers.

Urdu is described as an Indic language which is closely related to Hindi, but written in the Persian script and has many loanwords from Persian and Arabic. It is the official language of Pakistan, also widely used in India and in some other parts of Asia.

The expression ‘daily struggle to breathe’ suggests a struggle for survival not only for Deven and his co-workers, but also for the common people of India.

Most of the educational institutions in Mirpore are named after important historical figures such as Lala Ram Lai, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Dayanand and Annie Fiesanti.

The author deploys a narrative technique known as stream of consciousness in the description of Mirpore through the act of narrating the thought processes of Deven to the reader.

Some of the schools in Mirpore are Lala Ram Lai College and Swami Dayanand Veterinary and Agricultural College.

‘Malice is often mute.’ This expression describes Sarla’s attitude towards Deven’s reaction to the nylon shirt gifted him by Sarla’s parents.

‘The meek are not always mild’. This expression describes Deven’s attitude towards the colour of the nylon shirt his in-laws gifted him. Deven complains that the shirt is cheap, oversize and with unmatched buttons. This is the same shirt that he now wears on his way to Delhi to interview Nur. This is symbolic in the sense that it shows that the assignment is too big for Deven, or that he is not fit or equipped for the task he is travelling to carry out. 

 It is reported that Sarla’s parents stay in a place called Haldwani.

Nur is Deven’s hero. Deven has memorised many of Nur’s poems. He now recites one to himself: ‘Life is no more than a funeral procession winding towards the grave, its small joys the flowers of funeral wreaths. . .’ Though no important character dies throughout the novel, the motif of death permeates the plot. Perhaps, this death is metaphoric; it speaks of a greater loss other than the ephemeral life of man. It could connote the death of language, the soul of a people and spirit of a nation. The narrative voice goes on to assert through Deven’s co-traveller that the Indian people always choose heart over head.

Deven is depicted as one who does not have a mind of his own. He usually allows himself to be led and controlled by others like Murad and Sarla, including the tea shop owner in Delhi. This could be seen in the fact that though Deven did not budget to spend on non-essentials, he is persuaded by the tea shop owner to buy tea.

A series of omens is presented to Deven in the course of the trip to suggest that his journey to Delhi is fated to be a failure, just as his journey through life has so far been a failure. These omens include the dog hit by the car on the road, the triumphant crows, and the dead fly in the dregs of his tea. Deven meets with Murad shortly after the tea shop incident. Murad’s company is housed in K. K. Sahay & Sons, Printers and Publishers since 1935.

Deven’s fearful nature and lack of control over situations is equally noted in the incident involving the Sadhu, whose python frightens and intimidates Deven into giving away his money (a coin) even when he does not have enough nor intends to spend on such things.

Murad and Deven argue over issues bordering on punctuality in visiting Nur. While Deven insists on getting to Nur’s at 3 p.m. which is the time slated for the interview, Murad thinks that punctuality is not important, as Nur himself is not conscious of time. Finally, Murad gives Deven a letter of introduction to Nur and attaches an office boy to show him the way to Nur’s house.

Deven soon finds out that Nur stays in a noisy area of town and wonders why someone of Nur’s standing would stay in a place like that. Deven even thinks that he has lost his way. Outside Nur’s house, Deven is called a fool by an old man’s voice which would turn out to be the poet’s. Deven accepts this negative epithet about himself. It is humorous that Deven takes this insult to be his pass into the house, a form of tribulation he has to endure before being granted access into Nur’s paradise. Deven’s assent to the floor where Nur stays is described in glorious, epic and spiritual terms: ‘It was to him as if God has leaned over a cloud and called for him to come up’. This assertion likens Nur to a deity.

From this height of human perception, Nur gradually falls in the mind of Deven till the end of the novel when he decides to accept that human heroes must have their weaknesses, and Nur should be allowed to have his and be still respected.

First, Deven notices that Nur lives in a semi-dark room. From all indications, it is apparent that the house is not befitting of the person of Nur’s standing. Nur decries the state of Urdu and its poetry to Deven: ‘How can there be Urdu poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is finished.’ The demise of Urdu is linked to an incident in history: the defeat of the Moghuls by the British and the defeat of the British by the Hindi-wallahs. It should then be seen how the motif of war is central to the understanding of the novel. Human history is but a history of warfare both at the individual and societal levels.

Nur goes on to compare Urdu language to himself: ‘lying here to be buried’.

Nur mocks Deven for studying Hindi, bagging a degree in it, teaching it to others and then claiming to be preserving Urdu poetry. This is quite ironic and paradoxical. Deven’s life is indeed full of ironies and paradoxes. But it is life’s circumstances that forced Deven to study Hindi, rather than Urdu which he loves. By this, we refer to a historical or social force that is stronger than Deven himself.

Deven introduces himself as a temporary lecturer at Lala Ram Lai College, Mirpore. But Nur continues to mock Deven for teaching Hindi because of the need to earn a living: ‘Why not trade in rice and od if it is a living you want to earn?’ These sarcastic comments crush Deven, as he did not expect them from someone like Nur whom he holds in high esteem. Nur becomes visibly angry as he tells Deven that he [Nur] is not fit to serve anyone, let alone be the muse of Urdu. By this statement, Nur disqualifies himself from the exalted role Deven has expected him to play.

Deven recites Nur’s poems taught to him by his father. Nur is enthralled and praises Deven’s pronunciations. Nur asks Deven to continue the recitation if he remembers more, but they are interrupted by visitors, and the moment is lost forever. These visitors usually come in the evenings to listen to Nur recite his poems over food and drinks.

Deven is served tea in a metal cup, which is so hot that it scalds his hands. But Deven cannot drop the cup. This again speaks of Deven’s weak personality; his attitude of going through pains and discomfort in order to please people.

It is apparent from Deven’s observations that Nur is not respected by the people in his house. Deven also observes that he is not really welcomed or made to feel welcomed in Nur’s house. It is now nightfall and Deven has still not conducted the interview. He is highly frustrated as he is ignored and made to feel insignificant.

Nur’s personality begins to disappoint Deven because of the people that surround him: ‘. . .these louts, these lanfangas of the bazaar world – shopkeepers, clerks, bookies and unemployed parasites – lived out the fantasy of being poets, artists and bohemians here on Nur’s company.’ Deven is referring to the group that often gathers outside Nur’s apartment for food and poetry recitations from the great poet and from themselves. Deven also observes that ‘Nur eating was not at all a dignified or impressive sight . . .’ It is obvious that Nur has become an object of ridicule.

Deven also observes that many in the gathering want to recite their poems to Nur instead of listening to Nur recite his poems. The narrative voice goes on to describe Nur’s poetics: for him, poetry should be free from the immaturity of metered constraints. This means that he prefers free verse because of the freedom it offers both for form and contents. Nur also sees poetry as a weapon. But a young man in the crowd mocks Nur’s idea of using metaphors and alliteration as weapons. It is apparent that the young man is underrating the transformative and the liberating powers of poetry. 

It is revealed that Deven is a Hindu and teaches Hindi. Thus, his life is a contradiction of his beliefs. His religion and profession are determined by survival, and not by his true life’s aspirations.

The fall of Nur after his drinking with the hordes in his home is metaphoric, as it connotes his fall from dignity into indignity. Notice how Nur is commanded by his second and younger wife to stand up. Nur says that he has ulcers and that they cause pains and vomiting. The woman, Nur’s young wife, counters him, stating that it is drinks that cause his vomiting, not ulcers. Note that the relationship between this woman and Nur is not yet revealed in the novel. Thus, the author is presenting a cultural inversion and a reversal of traditional gender roles whereby a woman has authority over a man.

The woman also insults Deven by calling him ‘that poor beast’. She mocks Deven for considering Nur a hero, when actually he [Deven] is only caring for the food and drinks the poet provides and not the poet himself. She erroneously thinks that Deven is one of the cheap crowds that usually gather at Nur’s house every evening. This statement is a rude shock to Deven, who insists that he has come to pay his respects to the poet, his hero.

The woman says of Nur: ‘. . . He was a poet, a scholar – but is he now? Look at him!’ This statement is made as Nur is lying in his own vomit. From the woman’s words, it is Nur’s followers and worshippers that destroyed him. As will be revealed later in the novel, this statement is rather ironic because the woman is chief among those who destroyed Nur’s career.

It is soon revealed that the woman is Nur’s wife. It is interesting that she refers to Nur’s house as her own and sees Nur’s books as filthy things that turn her house into a pigsty. Deven uses the papers Nur’s wife throws at Nur to scrub Nur’s vomit. At this point, Nur is seen to have lost all control over his life and the circumstances around him.

The woman calls Nur a swine, telling him that he is living an inferior life.

Deven must have used Nur’s poems to scrub the floor and thrown them into the gutter in the street as he flees from the chaos of the disgraced poet’s house. This is indicative of the fact that Nur’s poems are no longer valued, just like the language it is written in, and so they are only good for the gutters.

Deven later regrets his abandoning the great poet in his moment of agony.

#We will continue from here next time#

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