Give a critical analysis of Anita Desai's In Custody.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Custody tells the story of Deven Sharma's attempts to pursue his passion for the Urdu language while working as a Hindi literature teacher. The book explores themes of modernization and cultural homogenization as Sharma finds it is quite difficult to pursue his passion for Urdu literature given the dominance of Hindi. While spoken Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible and both are registers of Hindustani, Hindi has become increasingly dominant in India.

The primary plot of In Custody explores Shama's journey to meet one of his heroes, an Urdu poet named Nur. Ultimately, Nur is a great disappointment, and meeting him dashes Sharma's hopes to a large degree. Sharma's grappling with the realization that the hero he had put his hopes in was not going to offer him a good solution is the heart of the story.

The fact that Desai is writing in English makes this story all the more interesting. There's a deep sadness to the way in which she writes of Sharma's passion and its clash with the reality of the decline of interest in Urdu literature. The colonial dynamics which make it far easier to publish a book in English than in Hindi further this theme: the passions of artists and their cultural heritages are at odds with the economic realities of the world, especially in post-colonial contexts such as India. While the story suggests some room for Sharma to pursue working with Urdu literature, it does not suggest the possibility of great public success or of a career. This seems like a nuanced and balanced take on the issue.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Custody follows a middle aged college professor, Deven, who receives an opportunity to escape the sadness of his daily life and interview his idol and India's greatest Urdu poet, Nur. Desai, the author, writes of the Indian hinterland in interwoven expressions including domestic conversations, middle class longings, dreams of refugees, and humor with cultural relevance to Indian country.

Sympathy is evoked for the main character as things go from bad to worse in his attempt to hold on to his enthusiasm for language, poetry, and the opportunity to break out of his normal routine. The poet, Nur, is an elusive character throughout the book. Despite him being a major part of Deven's journey, he makes few appearances in the story. While this leaves the reader on the hook for the plot, it also creates some confusion. Upon Deven's finding of Nur, there are some disappointments in his character—to say the least. Nur is described in opposition to the esteem that poets are held with in India. The disastrous nature of many of the characters suggest a sort of mental, or metaphorical, imprisonment rather than a physical one. Nur is a poet in the Urdu language, which has become marginalized itself.

The title In Custody ties into the narrative in a sense that we are all facing constraints by the circumstances we are in and have made on our own. The narrative is not that of a happy go lucky book but rather a combination of sad, comical absurdness as the stories of different characters from the same geographical area are tied together. It paints a portrait of a life not of roses and petals but one filled with more realistic expectations. Desai wraps up the ending with Deven returning home and finding reassurance in the meanness of his life. For once, he is not resenting his "circumstances." This leaves the reader to question the nature of "custody," or our metaphorical imprisonment.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this novel, as in so many others by Anita Desai, the key themes of identity and language are explored and developed. This is vital considering the context in which Desai sets so many of her novels, which is post-Partition and the massive upheaval that occurred as Pakistan was created as a separate nation and many Muslims and Hindus had to relocate and an imaginary border was created in a nation. The focus on language is shown in Deven, who focuses on Hindi poetry because he has no choice but to teach the language of the majority where he is based. However, he has a love of Urdu poetry, and when he tries to interview a famous old Urdu poet, Nur, he is insulted by his head of department with the following words:

I’ll get you transferred to your beloved Urdu department. I won’t have Muslim toadies in my department; you’ll ruin my boys with your Muslim ideas, your Urdu language. I’ll complain to the Principal, I’ll warn the RSS, you are a traitor.

Note the way in which, in this quote, the language you speak and your interest in it becomes a vital signifier of religious and national loyalty. The violence in the head of department's words reveals just how much language was such a massive issue in post-Partition India, and how expressing even a love of old Urdu poetry was seen as a mark of betrayal and being a traitor. Desai in this novel then writes of the way in which nationalism became a vehicle for the annexation of important cultural roots that form such an important part of the tapestry of India. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team