Anita Desai’s In Custody: Synopsis of Chapters Four and Five

Chapter 4

Deven is going back to Mirpore. Dawn is breaking as he nears Mirpore. He constantly remembers ‘the woman with the spittle-flecked red lips which had parted to scream abuse at the poet.’ Nur’s life is seen as a representation or a microcosm of Urdu poetry and language. Just as the language has lost its glory, Nur has lost his glory. Deven’s experience at Nur’s has already assumed traumatic possibilities and dimensions as he fears recalling them. Note the expression, ‘. . . poetry forever mixed with vomit in his mind’. This is a powerful visual imagery that conveys Deven’s perception of Nur and his art, or what society has reduced him to.

As Deven alights from the vehicle, he sees one of his students on a bicycle, which makes him to remember a line in Nur’s poetry: ‘Night ends, dawn breaks and sorrow reappears, addressing us in morning light with a cock’s shrill crow’. Deven refuses to go home, fearing Sarla’s reaction; so he went straight to the college.

A neighbour, Mrs Bhalla, chides Deven for not sending a message to inform Sarla, his wife,  that he would be returning late from Delhi.

It is revealed that Deven loves writing poetry more than teaching. It is also revealed that Deven marries Sarla based on his mother’s and aunts’ wishes. She wasn’t his choice. Sarla was the daughter of a friend of an aunt’s. Deven’s family had observed her for years and found her a suitable bride because she was ‘plain, penny-pinching and congenitally pessimistic’.

Sarla had her own dreams which the marriage thwarted; ‘she had dared to aspire towards a telephone, a refrigerator, even a car’. She is now bitter that she could not live her dreams. Sarla and Deven are depicted as two failures living together; two victims yoked together in a bitter matrimony. They live in denial and in constant accusations of each other. The marriage is blessed with a son by name Manu.

When Deven gets home, he begins his appeasement by trying to act polite towards the son, Manu. But the son does not respond to his pleas until the mother comes to the rescue. It is the mother’s voice that the son obeys. This shows how Deven has lost his authority as a man in the house. Sarla’s voice is so authoritative that it startles both father and son.

It is apparent that Manu is not doing well at school, as can be seen in the ‘. . . filthy scrawled pages, stained by erasures and slashed by an angry red pencil, the dismal marks, the sharp comments in the margins’. Despite this, Deven cannot bring himself to scolding his son. Apparently, he fears his wife and at the same time does not want to hurt his son. After all, he (Deven) has his own inadequacies in life. Instead, he praises Manu, which is not what he would have loved to do. It is as if life has blackmailed him to live in denial and escapism.

A salad of memories is experienced by Deven as he looks at his son’s picture books which contain images of wild animals. Deven decides to take his son for a walk; a gesture that surprises Sarla because of its rarity.

It is revealed that Deven belongs to the ‘grade of low-paid employees’ living in a poor neighbourhood.

The walk gives Deven relief and a new perspective on things, so that he begins to accept himself and his circumstances: ‘The calm exhilaration of the evening and the walk gave him an unaccustomed peace of mind, contentment with things as they are, and a certain modest, suburban being’. Even Manu is particularly happy this evening.

When Deven returns from the exalting walk with his son, he receives from his wife a postcard that invites him back to Delhi to interview Nur. It does appear that Nur has changed his mind.

Chapter 5

It happens that Murad had gone to tell Nur that Deven wants to be his secretary and is now chiding Deven for hesitating to take the job on account of distance, time and stress. It also happened that Deven did not report to Murad on the failings of his last visit to Nur before leaving Delhi.

Murad tells Deven that he met Nur at a public function and he told him that he had agreed to be interviewed by Deven and was waiting for him. All this shows how Murad manipulates Deven in the novel. It should be noted that in their final examination at school, Murad had scored a higher mark than Deven, although Murad had borrowed Deven’s notes and had often asked for Deven’s help. A scrutiny of their current relationship indicates that the same thing still obtains.

On Deven’s second visit, a woman [Imtiaz Begum] sits where Nur normally sits to recite his poems. She gets all the attention and applause while Nur ‘was at the back of the veranda, on a sagging cane chair, looking like a bag, or bolter. . .’ Nur had to be almost dragged to the front row for introduction and brief recognition. The narrative voice refers to Nur’s wife as ‘that painted creature’.

‘Soirée’ is pronounced /swarei/ and means a formal evening party.

Deven goes to greet Nur and learns that another person is coming to interview Nur. Deven feels anger and humiliation on hearing this. The interview he has been asked to conduct is not even for Nur; it is for him to come and listen to Imtiaz Begum, a poet, recite her poems. Imtiaz Begum would turn out to be Nur’s second and younger wife. She is the painted creature earlier talked about who is seated in front and getting all the attention and accolades. It is the birthday of Imtiaz Begum and the soiree is in her honour, Nur informs Deven.

When Begum begins to recite her poems, Deven observes that her poems were imitation of Nur’s verses, and Deven is not impressed by Begum’s performance. He sees her as an impostor, a fake, a fraud. At a point, Nur stands up and declares that he is tired. He is then taken to his room. From what Nur tells Deven in his room, it is obvious that Nur does not like the soiree. He calls out the vanity of women as seen in the birthday which he thinks should not be celebrated.

Nur informs Deven of how he got to know Begum, how she came to his house pretending to want to learn poetry from him, sending his secretary away even. Her real intention was to appropriate Nur’s art, personality and popularity. It is revealed that Begum was originally a popular singer.

Nur suddenly becomes angry when Deven mentions Murad’s mission and his message. He asks if Deven is also like Begum whom he calls a raider and a thief. Deven reminds Nur that he actually sent him a postcard.

Nur informs Deven that he has many poems in his head that he would love written down but that he was waiting for the right person who would do the job. He whets Deven’s appetite by telling him of a poem he wrote back in college when his friend died.

Begum soon enters the room: ‘Exhaustion and rage written in her every gesture and expression’.

The scene of Deven’s first visit is recreated. It is seen that Nur seems to be afraid of Begum and that Begum seems to have a certain power over him. Note the insulting tone with which Begum addresses Nur: ‘So this is where you have come to hide. . .’ She calls him a tortoise that sticks its head in the mud at the bottom of the pond. He accuses Nur of jealousy, saying that he couldn’t face her success: ‘You couldn’t bear the sight of someone else regaling a large audience with poetry – the same poetry you used to mouth. . .’

Begum even shows off the money that she earned that evening as the evidence of her success. She says that Nur ruined his voice through excessive drinking. She says that Nur insults her by getting up and leaving the performance. Then another woman enters the room; she is Nur’s first wife. This is the woman who has the ability to challenge Begum, asking her to leave Nur alone, calling her a bitch and accusing her of taking everything from Nur; his reputation and admirers. A fight is about to take place between the rival wives as Deven flees from the house and the fracas.

Deven informs Murad of what happened at Nur’s and says he needs to go back to Mirpore. Murad says that Deven should have stayed to see the end of the incident. Deven informs Murad of Nur’s preparedness to have someone write his verses down. Deven even envisages a book, instead of just a magazine story. This impresses Murad a lot but Deven says that taking time off his teaching job is the problem. Murad then suggests that he uses a tape recorder.

‘Gutenberg’ constitutes a historical allusion as it refers to the town in Germany where printing press was first invented in Europe.

Deven initially rejects the idea of a tape recorder, which makes Murad to call him a ‘village pumpkin’ who is still fascinated with the printed page. He then tells Deven that the printed page is gone and that the public now demands sound and sight (video). This is ironic and self-contradictory because Murad’s magazine is based on the printed page.

Deven finally admits that the tape recorder is a brilliant idea. The problem now is where to get it and how to use it since he has never used one, having not even bought a radio for his family. Murad challenges Deven to get one. He insults Deven: ‘Try to use your head sometimes – give it a little exercise – it will get stuck with rust otherwise . . .’

#Watch out for more#

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