In Custody is the story of the disillusionment that Deven Sharma experiences after meeting a long-time idol, the legendary poet Nur Sahjahanabadi. The provincial school teacher had placed the Urdu-language literary giant on a pedestal but is forced to confront the reality of Nur’s declining powers and personal shortcomings. In addition, Deven’s excursions to the city test his relationship with his wife, Sarla. Despite Nur’s centrality to the plot, author Anita Desai focuses on the character of Deven. She uses third-person narration, which can be used to provide insight into all characters. Instead, Desai largely aligns this narrator’s perspective with that of Deven.
Desai’s method enables the reader to know the modest teacher, who seems to represent the dashed post-independence hopes of India’s Urdu speakers.
The greatness of Nur is Deven’s obsession—so much so that he constantly doubts his ability to do him justice through the interviews. Desai slowly and carefully builds up the legend surrounding the poet so that when the reader meets him as Deven does, about halfway through the novel, they share his disappointment. Nur is revealed through his interactions with his wives and numerous minor characters, in part because his own capacities are largely diminished.
While Sarla may be an equal partner in the marriage, Deven tries to prioritize his needs within the marriage. She has had to adjust her aspirations for material wellbeing to the realities of her husband’s position.
In some respects, the more traditional wife serves as a foil to the unconventional, poetically gifted Imtiaz. Nur’s second wife captivates Deven, who is nevertheless shocked and disapproving of her boldness.