Anita Desai’s In Custody: Synopsis of Chapters Eight and Nine

Chapter 8

 It is seen in this chapter that Deven and Sarla lack quality communication in their marriage. This is seen in many weeks passing by without Deven going to Delhi and yet his wife does not know why. Thus, Sarla is sarcastic when she finally asks Deven about it: ‘So no more Delhi for you? What happened? Were you thrown out?’ Deven lies that he only goes to Delhi for work and that when he has work, he will go.

Sarla goes to the kitchen where she could freely shout on the children or speak loudly to the neighbours, ‘since it is not possible to shout at her husband’ without incurring one form of retaliation or another. This is indicative of the fact that in most patriarchal societies, the kitchen is considered the woman’s only sphere of influence; and sometimes the ‘other room!’ This is also an instance of a defence mechanism known as displacement, which is the discharging of pent-up feelings, usually of hostility, on objects less dangerous than those which initially aroused the emotions.

Deven in an afterthought says to himself that he should have made his wife jealous by making her think that he was seeing a lady in Delhi: ‘But that was how it was with him, he sighed; his reflexes, sluggish out of a habitual timidity and indecisiveness, were slowing further; tardy in both thought and deed, he was never ready with the apt word or appropriate actions, both seemed to trail him at a moody distance’.

Another instance of defence mechanism illustrated in the novel is compensation. Compensation occurs when Deven smokes to comfort himself. It is ironic that it is a cheap cigarette that gives Deven comfort and solace. Deven seems to have inherited his father’s weakness which makes him an ineffectual, if not harmless, teacher and householder. He reflects on his rejected poems, his unpublished monograph, how his wife and children look at him with disappointment and how he had not won the regard of his colleagues and students. The greatest defeat of all is his inability to interview Nur, which would have helped his reputation and ego.

A postcard soon arrives, sent by Nur, saying that he has written thirty-six couplets on the subject of women’s suffering as inspired by his wife. He asks Deven to come and copy them.

Deven sees himself as ‘a trapped animal’. The idea of being trapped or being in prison is a motif that echoes throughout the novel. This justifies an aspect of the novel’s title, In Custody. Man is seen to be trapped not only by his own choices, but also by certain existential circumstances over which he has no control. The two most important characters seen to be trapped in the novel are Nur and Deven. Nur feels trapped in his own house by his wives and those he surrounds himself with. Deven is trapped by his own existential paradoxes; loving Urdu but teaching Hindi. The second aspect of the novel’s title relates to the first and it refers to the attempt by some characters in the novel like Deven, Murad and Begum to either record or appropriate the legacy of Nur.

Deven goes to visit Siddiqui in his home. Siddiqui lives in one of the old villas left behind by the nawabs. But this villa has fallen on hard times. The decay of the years which manifests in the villa is described as ‘. . . decrepit but spacious, neglected garden, leafless trees, dying shrubs where there had once been lawns and flowerbeds.’

Siddiqui is a bachelor. He welcomes Deven warmly. A boy, Chotu, is asked to bring a chair and a drink for Deven. It is reported that Siddiqui ceased cooking after the kitchen roof caved in and buried the broken utensils. He now buys his food outside. Deven says that it is expensive to be buying food outside and Siddiqui replies that he has no one to spend on except himself, and that he has no connections except Chotu, whom he praises for being talented. He expresses his wish to train Chotu to develop his singing skills.

‘They sat on the terrace, like a pair of nawabs stranded in the backwaters of time . . . .’ This statement refers to the solitary figures of Deven and Siddiqui in the ruined villa. Siddiqui is cursed to live in the villa by his ancestor whose property was seized by the British while he fled with his family to Mirpore and left a word that all his descendants must live in the villa. Siddiqui wishes that someone could do him the favour of destroying the villa so that he could be free from the curse and so that he could return to the walled city where Urdu is spoken. Deven sees this as a prompt to say his mission, but hardly has he begun speaking about Nur and the interview than Siddiqui remembers to ask Chotu to go and call Anwar and Mehtab for the poker game, after which he [Chotu] would sing.

Siddiqui is depicted playing the poker game recklessly and losing hand after hand, though he seems to be enjoying every bit of it. Deven soon withdraws from the game and asks Chotu to take his place.

 ‘. . . drink with us if you want to play with us’, Siddiqui tells Deven.

The game finally gets broken up for refreshments. It is soon time for the now drunk Deven to leave. Siddiqui decides to see him off. At the gate, Deven begins again to mention Nur. Siddiqui asks if he has the tape for him to listen to. Deven says there is no tape. Siddiqui gets suspicious and presses more questions on Deven, asking Deven why there was no tape when money had been given and he had gone to Delhi. Deven is entangled in the gate’s metal structure. It is in this state that he is forced to confess that he has not carried out the interview yet because Nur and his wife demanded money. He tells Siddiqui that he is giving up on the project. But Siddiqui checks him, stating that the project must be done because he [Deven] will be held responsible if the project is not executed, as the tape has been paid for by the university. He also accuses Deven of deception.  

At this point, Deven falls but he continues to let Siddiqui see the bureaucracy involved in interviewing Nur. But Siddiqui says he is only interested in the tape which will be handed over to the university. How Deven goes about the recording is his problem. Finally, Siddiqui says that if Deven needs money, it has to be requested from the authorities. He opts to make the financial request on Deven’s behalf since Deven is incapable. Then Siddiqui returns to the house to join the merry party of Chotu and the others.

Deven’s fall at the gate is metaphoric and symbolic. It points to how he loses authority in the Nur affair while Siddiqui now has the upper hand. Again, this reminds us of Deven’s lack of agency which makes his life to be controlled by others.

Back home, Deven stools seriously. He thinks Siddiqui’s drinks must have caused it, but it turns out that it is caused by a psychological loss of control and panic.

Murad sends Deven a telegram demanding explanations for the delay in the recording of Nur. Deven throws away the telegram after crumpling it.

The failure of religion is seen in Sarla making offering to Lakshmi the goddess of luck but in vain. The idea is that hard work has its place and luck also has its place in human life; one cannot replace the other.

Siddiqui informs Deven that the registrar has agreed to give Deven the money he demanded and that they should discuss it over tea. The money to be given to Deven is a donation by one of the college benefactors, Lala Bhagwan Das.

Deven goes to Mr Trevedi, the Head of Hindi Department, to request permission to take a week’s leave in order to conduct the interview on Nur. Mr Trevedi refuses to grant the request. He asks Deven to wait until after examinations so that Deven could make use of the whole holiday. When Deven refuses to budge, Mr Trevedi resorts to threats and intimidations: ‘I’ll have you demoted . . . I’ll see to it you don’t get your confirmation. I’ll get you transferred to your beloved Urdu department. I won’t have Muslim toadies in my department. . .’

It is reported that Sarla, Deven’s wife, is Hindu.

Deven asks Sarla to take Manu with her to her parents’ during the week he will be working in Delhi.

Chapter 9

In Delhi Deven gives money to Nur’s wife who points him to a pink house in the neigbourhood. She instructs him to enter the house through the back door and that he will see another woman who will take him to the room upstairs where the interview is to be held. Deven gets to the house. The backdoor is guarded by a huge male figure, a bouncer. When Deven mentions Nur’s name, the man steps aside and calls out for the woman Nur’s wife had mentioned. When the woman appears, Deven goes to call Chiku, his technical assistant, to come in with the equipment. The interview is billed to last for only three days, but it would go on for three weeks.

Murad soon arrives to sight the setting of the interview.

‘. . . Can a poet be pinned down by time? . . . he is immortal and belongs to all time’. Deven makes this statement in response to Murad’s question about how long Deven thinks the interview would last.

Nur begins the interview by talking about food and drinks when Deven had already asked Chiku to set the recording machine rolling. Nur tells Deven the kind of food that he would like to eat – biryani with long rice, including rum. But Deven does not have any money left for the fresh expenses as he had handed over all the money he took from the university to Imtiaz Begum, who finally took over the arrangement of the interview.

Amidst the drinking and eating, Nur is still able to recite some of his poems to Deven. But Chiku is not professional enough to effect a good recording. He even sleeps through the recording. There are times that the room becomes so rowdy that one wonders the sense in allowing so many people in a room where a recording is taking place. All the signs are there to suggest that the interview is bound to fail.

‘Deven hung his head, shamed. Chiku sniggered. The tape whirred, recording adversity and humiliation’.

 Nur’s interview is wrecked by various disasters; Nur’s unstructured spontaneity, Chiku’s incompetence and Deven’s lack of agency. People even fight outside the interview room. People even speak when they should not. For instance, a shabbily dressed young man gossips that Nur found his second wife, Begum, in the same brothel that Deven is using for the interview.

Deven gradually has to admit that Nur is human after all. He asks himself this decisive question: ‘. . . in taking Nur’s art into his hands, did he [Deven] have to gather up the stained, soiled, discoloured and odorous rags of his life?’

Deven refuses to listen to that day’s recording as demanded by Chiku. Perhaps, this would turn out to be a mistake. The recording goes on for three weeks, instead of three days.

It is later revealed that Chiku is Murad’s nephew. He has been planted by Murad so as to get updates on the proceedings of the interview. Murad wants the interview to end soon, but Deven feels like he was just beginning to get the main gist from Nur. It is probably when it is too late that Deven thinks of buying a notebook to take down Nur’s words to act as backup to Chiku’s faulty machine.

As the interview winds up, Deven wanders to the part of Delhi where his parents’ house is located. But he does not want to lodge in his parents’ house for the night because it is now possibly inhabited by the new generation of relations. He does not want to resume his relationship with them. He rather goes to an old school friend’s house. His name is Raj. He now teaches in Egypt. Deven meets Raj’s aunt and asks if Raj has returned. Deven is welcomed and served food but it is not likely that the woman remembers him. She is only serving Deven on religious grounds. Her charity is a religious duty. It is the male guest at the house who actually answers Deven’s questions about Raj. It is the same man also who asks Deven to spend the night there in the house. The man is a tailor. He is not a relation of the religious woman. He is the one who offers protection to Raj’s aunt. He also helps her to sing during piyas, as he has a good voice, knows many songs and is passionate about singing. Raj’s aunt stays in the area called Darya Ganji.

It is reported that Raj was slightly deformed; one of his legs was longer than the other.

The tailor decries to Deven the crazy fashion taste women have these days. He describes a particular dress style a woman once wanted him to sew: ‘. . . here an opening, there an opening, what is there left for me to sew?’ This is an instance of humour in the novel. The tailor also discusses his life’s aspirations with Deven.

The Darya Ganji streets are said to be unsafe at night.

Deven remembers his school days with Raj and how Raj’s house used to serve as a refuge from the demanding Murad and Deven’s family. Note how the house still serves the same purpose for Deven in his adult life. Deven is depicted as always running away from people.

‘They are over, my writing days.’ This statement is made by Nur to Deven after writing a new verse from Deven’s copy book.

‘Sir, your poetry. Your volumes of verses. They are left. They will be with us always.’ Deven makes this statement to Nur after Nur has said that nothing is left of him. Nur’s response marks his admitting of his final defeat: ‘. . . you keep them and let me go to what I have waiting for me – six feet of earth in the cemetery by the mosque.’ Note that after making this statement, Nur leaves the recording scene, perhaps bringing an end to it all.

Deven pleads with Nur not to end the interview to no avail. Nur says that he wants to resume the primordial sleep, a sad euphemism for death.

‘All one can resume, at my age, is the primordial sleep. I am going to curl up on my bed like a child in its mother’s womb and I shall sleep, shall wait for sleep to come.’ Nur is anticipating death.

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