The characters in Anita Desai's novel In Custody struggle to create, discover, and retain their identities as well as to discern and interact with the identities of others.
Deven, the story's protagonist, has a great love for Urdu poetry. He longs to build his identity around it, to immerse himself in it, and to see God through it. He even wants to write poetry, to become a poet himself. But he cannot. He has a wife, and although the marriage is certainly not about love and creates much dissatisfaction for both spouses, Deven feels the responsibility to support his wife. Therefore, he sets aside his great love of Urdu poetry and spends his days teaching Hindi literature. He is not interested in this. He is not even particularly good at it. Yet his identity as a husband (an identity not wanted or enjoyed) supersedes his love of poetry. He gives way to duty and suppresses himself.
As the story progresses, though, Deven has a chance to interview the great poet Nur. Nur, however, does not turn out to be the man Deven thinks he is, at least not so far as Deven can see at first. Nur lives in squalor, and Deven has a difficult time discerning the poet's true identity behind the external circumstances that repulse Deven. Even Nur seems to have difficulty holding onto who he really is, for he at first tells Deven that Urdu is becoming a dead language. Apparently, Nur feels like his own identity, so wrapped up in Urdu as it is, is also dying.
Indeed, the entire novel revolves around the identity of Indians like Deven and Nur who are caught between their traditions and modernity, between their responsibilities and their passions, and between their search for themselves and the demands of what others expect them to be.