In the novel In Custody, what makes Deven the true custodian of the Urdu language?

Deven is the true custodian of the Urdu language in In Custody because he is the man who has not given up on the language and everything that it means to him. While the acclaimed poet, Nur, is ready to accept that Urdu is a dead language, Deven continues to fight the good fight.

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In a nutshell, Deven, rather than Nur, is the true custodian of the Urdu language because he is the one who has remained faithful to it and refused to consider it a dying language or something that society should give up on. It is his passion for all things Urdu that makes Deven feel truly alive—far more so than his job as a teacher of Hindi literature or the discontented life that he leads with his wife.

Being invited to interview Nur, who is a famous Urdu poet, gives Deven possibly the greatest feeling of fulfillment in his life, and he expects to have a passionate conversation about language with someone who cherishes it as much as he does. Meeting Nur, however, turns out to be a huge disappointment, as Nur encourages to Deven to accept the death of the language about which, at some stage, both men were so passionate. Nur, therefore, cannot be considered the true custodian of the Urdu language, because he was ready to give up on it.

Deven makes some notable sacrifices in the process of getting to interview Nur. He angers his wife, breeds suspicion amongst his colleagues that he is having an affair, and winds up having Nur’s wife demand payment for the privilege of interviewing her husband. Despite all this, Deven sticks to his guns and eventually achieves the goal which he had set for himself, which was to immortalize Nur’s words by getting them on tape.

Basically, it is Deven, and not Nur, who has not given up on the Urdu language, and this is why Deven is the custodian.

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One of the issues that Anita Desai raises is the relationship between language and society. Deven was sent to a remote rural area to teach as a result of the post-independence partition. The social and political biases against Muslims and the Urdu language are shown in the state’s decision not to teach Urdu, which contributes to the language’s decline.

Deven’s position is paradoxical because, by working within that discriminatory system, he effectively supports the repression of the very language to which he is devoted. One way that Desai shows Deven’s commitment to supporting his beloved Urdu is precisely through his acceptance of the assignment to profile the great poet Nur.

Through this experience, as he travels to the city and enters the realm of the creative artists, Deven must face the limitations of his own idealism. As he sees how the poet has cut himself off from society, surrounding himself by sycophants and indulging in decadent behaviors, Deven comes to understand the importance of the shared use of a language—as a means of supporting not just the language itself but the society it represents.

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Deven is the true custodian of the Urdu language because of his true passion for it. It is his first language, and he has a strong love for Urdu poetry. Although the language has become so much less used over the decades leading up to the story, Deven refuses to believe that it will die. Although (or perhaps because) Deven never became a writer of Urdu poetry like he had hoped, he maintaines a deep connection with the Urdu language. Deven never really builds this with the Hindi language that he teaches, the language that is coming to replace it.

In contrast, Nur is not the custodian of the Urdu language because, despite the fact that he is a famous Urdu poet, Nur believes that the language is dying, and he mocks Deven's attempts to save it.

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Deven is the true custodian of Urdu, rather than the great Urdu poet Nur, because Deven struggles to hold on to the memory of the language at all costs, while Nur seems to have lost faith in it. As a once-great and revered Urdu poet, Nur on the face of it has far greater credentials as keeper of the language than Deven, a lowly teacher of Hindi. However, Nur keeps himself deliberately apart from mainstream modern Indian society, living among the relics of a bygone age in his haveli, keeping undesirable company and indulging in debauchery. In short, he has let himself go to ruin, reflecting his belief that Urdu, once the treasured poetical language of the country, is no longer relevant to India following the relocation of its Muslim adherents to Pakistan. He expresses his bitterness to Deven, who comes to seek an interview with him:

How can there be an Urdu poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is dead, finished...So, now you see its corpse lying here, waiting to be buried…Those Congress-wallahs have set up Hindi on the top as our ruler. You are its slave.

Nur, then, jibes at Deven for having given in to societal pressures to teach Hindi, the ruling language of Post-Partition India. Nur considers Urdu a wholly spent force, effectively dead and buried. From this point of view, his physical ruin symbolises the demise of the language.

Deven, though, still believes in the language. He treasures his early memories of when his father used to recite it to him. Throughout all the difficulties of his adult life, his unsympathetic environment both at home and at work, he has never relinquished these memories, and in seeking out Nur, he endures the ridicule, and indeed the outright hostility, of his seniors at the college where he teaches. The Urdu language means something special to him; it is a vital part of the country's heritage which for him endures through all the political and social changes in the wake of Independence and Partition. In this sense he is a true custodian of the language. 

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