Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Anita Desai’s In Custody takes place in India and follows the life of Deven Sharma, the main character and protagonist of the novel. Taking place between 1980 and 1999, the story details the massive upheaval in customs, attitudes, and culture that occurred in India during the post-colonial period of new independence.
Deven’s life replicates the broader social upheaval in India, as he lives an unhappy, conflict-ridden life with his wife, Sarla, and their young son. He works as a teacher and instructs students in Hindi literature, but the Urdu language, which is struggling to retain speakers, is his true passion. Viewing his life as a mirror for India’s struggle to define itself during the mid to late-twentieth century allows readers to see through the cracks in the failing caste system in India and other such social fractures. Deven, like his country, has settled. He has failed to become a writer of Urdu poetry but, similar to his countrymen, is still searching for a source of meaning in his life.
His life is mundane but consistent until something wonderful and unexpected happens: Nur, a famous Urdu poet who lives in Delhi, invites the teacher to travel to Delhi and interview him. Though wary of the involvement of his shifty friend Marad in this opportunity, Deven is ecstatic and intrigued by the possibility of fulfilling his dream. However, when he gets to the big city, he is appalled by how disgustingly dirty it is. As he climbs his way up the many stairs leading to Nur's home, Deven's misgivings fade away, and his spirits begin to soar. The author uses this scene to suggest upward mobility in much more than physical terms.
When Deven finally meets Nur, he gets the worst surprise of his journey. As often happens in life, talent and fame do not naturally lead to happiness. Nur is old and lives in a messy, run-down home; his mind is going, and misery surrounds him. Though initially taken aback, Deven resolves to help Nur, whose work he has long admired. Deven decides to memorialize the poet's words by recording them on tape. Nur initially resists this proposal, telling Deven to give up and accept that Urdu will soon be a dead language. Nur's wife and the others hanging around him demand that Deven pay for the chance to interview Nur, which Deven struggles to do. Meanwhile, Sarla becomes angry that her husband is away, and Deven's colleagues assume he is having an affair in Delhi.
The trip sparks drama in Delhi and at home, and Deven seems to leave Delhi discouraged and unfulfilled, yet he soon realizes that he and Nur are similar. Although their lives are different, they are both caretakers of the past, members of an exclusive group passionate about preserving Urdu, India, and the beauty of the complex past. As he returns home, worried about facing his wife, his colleagues, and his boss, Deven realizes that he has a hand in the future, leaving him feeling hopeful and empowered. Perhaps events did not unfold as he wished. Perhaps Urdu is a dying language. Regardless, he has agency and can act to preserve the language and poetry he loves.
This novel reflects the reality that many Indians, especially those among the lower classes, may have expected dramatic improvements in their lives following the social change and modernization of twentieth-century India. Like them, Deven has great expectations when he sets out for Delhi—yet possibly the most redeeming feature of his trip is that he manages to get Nur's words on tape. Ultimately, this story does not discourage a search for the better things in life, but it reminds us not to expect too much, for disappointments and change will always happen.