In Anita Desai's In Custody, Safiya Begum, the first wife of the celebrated poet Nur, has a minor part in the novel and, for that matter, in Nur's life. Desai refers several times to her age and emphasizes her lack of education. Safiya is also described as brooding over her inability to provide Nur with a son, gloating when she thinks she has outdone Imtiaz in some small way, and gossiping in a pointed manner. She is depicted as cunning but ignorant, her life orbiting Nur's.
Imtiaz Begum, Nur's second wife, does not think of herself as the rival of Safiya. Though she dislikes Nur's first wife, she also despises her as a foolish old woman beneath her notice. Instead, Desai makes it clear that Imtiaz sees herself as the rival and intellectual equal of her celebrated husband, since she is also a poet, and a natural performer. Imtiaz is a much more dynamic and driven character than Safiya, eager for fame, greedy for money, and aspiring to dominate every situation. She manipulates Nur to get whatever she wants, and has no interest in performing any of her traditional wifely duties, as she allows his house to fall into disarray. Imtiaz's strong will is shown by the powerful effect she has, not only on Nur but on all those around her, while Safiya remains continually in the background, disregarded by everyone, including her husband.