Anita Desai’s In Custody: Synopsis of Chapters Six and Seven

Chapter 6

The annual spring cleaning of the college where Deven works is reported from the beginning of this chapter. It is a week-long activity and it is lecture free. A board meeting is ongoing in the midst of the cleaning exercise and members of staff are to wait to be introduced to the board members shortly after the meeting during the tea session. Everyone, including Deven, is in a mood of relaxation during tea. But Deven suddenly becomes tense when he realises that the principal is behind him.

Abid Siddiqui is mentioned as the Head of Urdu Department in the college.

The 1857 mutiny comes up again, implying that history is a motif in the novel. The recall of the mutiny highlights the fleeing of the nawabs, and how that history relates to the founding of the college. The descendants of the nawabs made large donations to the descendants of Lala Ram Lai’s family, part of which was used for the establishment of the college. The nawabs are Muslims and due to the nature of Indian politics, their names could not be written on the school’s signposts. When they threatened to withdraw their donations, a compromise was reached in the form of Urdu Department to preserve the language of the nawabs. It is reported in the novel that very few students studied Urdu because most of the Muslims had fled to the new country, Pakistan.

‘The annual tea day is different from the daily tea . . . .’ This statement is made by Abid Siddiqui in response to Deven’s greetings. The conversation between Deven and Siddiqui is warm and revealing. It should be noted that the annual tea day is as official as it is artificial and does not represent the daily cuisine experiences of the members of staff of the college, especially people like Deven. It is a day that they get to eat what they have been unable to eat all year round; the day that men and women get to be nice to each other at least for a change.

‘. . . he [Deven] stretched out his hand towards a saucer of salted cashew nuts before it was whisked out of his reach’. This is the kind of meal that Deven refers to as ‘expensive eatable’. But in most cases it is as if this kingly food is used to whet their appetite and then is taken away before they could have enough of it: ‘Siddiqui looked after the disappearing tray a little sadly . . .’ It is indeed true, as Siddiqui notes, that they are living in ‘hard times’.

Both Deven and Siddiqui soon are talking about Urdu language until Deven mentions Nur and the upcoming magazine.

Nur Shahjehanabadi is the poet’s full name.

When Deven mentions that he is the one to interview Nur, Siddiqui’s respect for him soars. It should be noted that Deven is consciously or unconsciously also appropriating his acquaintance of Nur – using it to launder his image and boost his ego, just like Begum and others have done. Deven has only gone to Nur’s house twice, but he tells Siddiqui that he has been to Nur’s house on many occasions. When Siddiqui thinks that Deven is lying about his affiliations with Nur, Deven is hurt deeply and wonders why people often doubt his sincerity and quality. This is ironically humorous and paradoxical as Deven has not been completely sincere in his accounts about his relationship with Nur.

Deven is finally able to convince Siddiqui about the Nur project, especially when he mentions using a tape recorder for Nur’s interview. Siddiqui even ignores Mr Trivedi, the college head librarian, in order to continue his discussion with Deven. Siddiqui is so taken by the entire project that he does not object to Deven’s proposal for him [Siddiqui] to request recording equipment for Urdu department, which will be used for the Nur project.

When Mr Rai, the college Registrar, emerges from the board meeting, he tells Siddiqui and the waiting members of staff that the Board only informed the management staff of budget cuts, meaning that instead of having more funding for the college, they should be expecting a reduction in funding.

‘Sharma Sahib’ is the name given to Deven by Siddiqui and other colleagues in the college.  

While Deven waits on Siddiqui as he makes his request to Mr Rai, Deven‘s colleague, Jayadev, comes along to tease Deven about his being absent from the college on Sundays, saying he has been observed. Soon other colleagues join in teasing Deven: ‘Who is this fair beauty of Delhi who lures you away every Sunday?’ they tease him.

When Deven frees himself from his colleagues, he discovers that Mr Rai and Mr Siddiqui have left. Instead he is faced with his wife, Sarla, who tells him that it is time for them to go home as Manu would be hungry and crying.

The next day, Deven receives a note that requests him to meet Mr Rai in his office at 12 noon.

Deven notes that the stir that is now occurring around his life is caused by Nur. He sees Nur as a magic name that opens doors: ‘. . . the magic name of Nur Shahjehanabadi . . . It was a name that opened doors . . . .’ These are Deven’s impressions about the name of the great poet.  He waits at the Registrar’s office for fifteen minutes since noon only to learn from the doorman that Mr Rai is in a meeting. Deven leaves for his class, but he is later able to meet with Mr Rai who gives him papers that sanction the purchase of audiovisual equipment for the Nur project.

 Deven also observes the general attitude of his students: ‘. . . these groups of hostile and mocking young students . . .’

Deven and Murad go to buy the recording equipment in a Delhi shop. It is obvious that Murad and the shopkeeper have an understanding to swindle or cheat Deven out of the recorder purchase. The shopkeeper’s name is Jain Sahib. Chiku is the shopkeeper’s nephew. He is the one who brings in a carton that contains the recording equipment, just as Deven is about to leave the shop in anger, having noticed the game Murad and Jain were trying to play. Deven is seen to be acting impulsively instead of having a well-thought out plan. He again allows himself to be manipulated by Murad to buy the recorders instead of taking control of the project as the college expects him to.

‘. . . the deal seemed as good as signed and there was nothing for it but to resign himself to the consequences.’ This is indicative of Deven’s lack of control over the circumstances of his life. The recorder is a Japanese product which Deven calls fake but which the others praise. Chiku is going to be Deven’s technical assistant since Deven admits to neither knowing anything about electronics nor knowing how to operate it. The shopkeeper presents Chiku as an expert, but this is likely not true.

Chapter 7

This chapter begins with the narrator philosophising on the notion of time and space. Deven thinks he has chosen an hour that he could find Nur alone, but he is surprised to find the house full of people.

‘. . . the poet’s disconsolate figure . . .’ The word ‘disconsolate’ means cheerless and dreary  and it is used to describe Nur. Deven finds the great poet in despair. He tells Deven that Imtiaz Begum is seriously ill and that no doctor can help her. Nur says that the illness is likely caused by the birthday stress. Begum had collapsed that night. But Deven thinks that it could have been the fight that he missed that caused the collapse of Begum.

Nur’s son is equally ill. The illness is caused by a virus. Begum and the son are to be taken to the hospital. Deven likes the idea of Begum being taken to the hospital because it will afford him the opportunity of having Nur all to himself during the interview. Recall how Begum drove away Nur’s secretary so that she and the poet could be alone. It appears that everyone wants to have Nur to themselves.

Even though Begum is sick and near death, she refuses to be taken to the hospital.

‘. . . Before Time crushes us into dust, we must record our struggle against it’. This poetic statement by Nur is used to express his consent for the interview to begin.

It becomes increasingly obvious that Nur’s life is being controlled by Begum. Nur tells Deven that he cannot recite poetry when Begum lies sick and that Begum does not want him to recite poetry anymore.

Is Nur being blackmailed? Nur is afraid that Begum would hear them talking about the interview and the recording. He even asks Deven to leave and never to mention such an idea.  It seems that Nur is trapped in his own house by Begum who must have set spies on the great poet. It is apparent that someone had eavesdropped on their conversations because a servant soon comes in to summon Nur and Deven to Begum’s room.

‘Before you persuade that confused old man to appear in public, take one look at the one who has done so and suffered’. This statement is made by Begum to Deven, warning him against interviewing Nur. From Begum’s words, it is clear that she had obtained information on Deven: ‘I have found out about you. I know your kind – jackals from the so-called universities that are really asylums for failures. . .’

‘Bibi’ is Nur’s nick name for Begum.

‘Jackals don’t murder . . . They wait for others to murder, because they haven’t the courage. Then they come to feed on the flesh.’ Begum directs this statement at Nur. She goes on to emotionally blackmail Nur, crying that Nur will recite poetry to Deven while she lies sick.

As Deven leaves, he is called by a voice that turns out to be the old woman that once silenced Begum. She tells Deven that Begum wants to get rid of him and that that explains the feigned illness, which is a trick. She goes on to tell Deven that she knows that he has come for more than eating and drinking that other followers of Nur do. Begum knows that Deven has come to write a book on Nur, the old woman tells Deven. She also informs Deven that Begum wants Nur’s fame and glory. She encourages Deven not to let Begum stop him. They then go on to arrange how to get Nur out of the house in order for the interview to take place smoothly.

‘She will not leave . . . she has planted herself in our house – like a witch . . . .’ Nur’s first wife says this to Deven about Begum.

Nur is to be taken out of the house through the back door to a room that will be rented for the interview. It is revealed that the old woman is Nur’s first wife while Begum is the second wife. It is also revealed that Begum has a son for Nur; the one that is sick. The first wife only has daughters. This explains everything! It explains why Begum seems to have the upper hand in the house and why Nur tends to prefer and revere her over the first wife. Male child preference is a serious issue in Indian traditional culture. The device of suspense has been deployed to keep this information from the reader up to this moment in the novel.

The old woman declares that she is the first wife and so she has more authority. She is ready to arrange a room for Deven. Deven is to send her a message when he is ready.  She tells Deven that she is preparing Nur’s favourite meal and that only she can prepare it.

As Deven leaves, the woman reminds him about the payment for the interview; Nur cannot do the interview for free, according to her. She asks Deven to send his message about readiness alongside money. This is unethical and exploitative. It is clear in the novel that everyone wants to make money out of Nur and Nur’s name. Deven even thinks of abandoning the project at this point.

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