Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Growing up in mid-twentieth-century India, Anita Desai’s life and work were heavily influenced by her experience with the dramatically different and rapidly changing worlds of pre- and post-colonial India. Her work is indelibly stamped by the changing landscape of her childhood. Desai's stories, such as the 1984 novel, In Custody, deal with these changes and the everyday ways they impacted individual lives and practices. The novel takes up the question of language to discuss the power that words and dialects have to shape culture as an object of the past, present, and future. 

Desai discusses these heavy themes through the voice of a Hindi university professor named Deven. Although Deven teaches Hindi, his passion is Urdu. When a friend arranges for him to meet the aging Urdu poet Nur, he reluctantly leaves behind his strained marriage and young son to travel to Delhi. The novel is littered with conflict and characterized by a sense of diametric opposition, as many dichotomous themes appear throughout. Indeed, Desai discusses such complex themes as the difference between urban and rural life, the struggle of being working class and the ease of generational wealth, the rift between tradition and modernity, and the difficulty of orienting oneself amongst India’s changing sociocultural climate. Desai uses these stark contrasts to delineate her characters and propel the narrative. Contrast and the juxtaposition of how these conflicting thoughts and motivations appear in each character are the most prominent literary devices the author employs.

Deven lives in Mirpur, a small, rural town in the north of India, and works at an equally small local university whose Urdu department is understaffed and underfunded due to the predominance of Hindi in modern India. Indeed, the department only exists due to the funding of a Pakistani noble. Although Deven loves the Urdu language, he teaches only Hindi to his pupils, for it is the only language the university views as useful and marketable. Ironically, Deven travels to Delhi, a bustling metropolitan city where Urdu has been rendered largely obsolete, to pursue his interest in the language, as the city is home to the famous but aging poet Nur Shahjehanabadi. The conflicts of rural and urban and Hindi and Urdu pervade the narrative, appearing in both Deven’s professional and marital life. His time in Delhi reassures Deven of his disinterest in city life. This is unfortunate for his wife, Sarla, with whom he shares an arranged marriage, as she would have preferred modern amenities, but their years of marriage have resigned her to the small, dusty town of Mirpur.

The novel also focuses on the relationship between Deven and a friend from his college years: Murad. Now a successful business owner, Murad comes from a wealthy family whose fortune stretches deep into the annals of their family history. Money gives Murad confidence that borders on arrogance and allows him to manipulate Deven, specifically by deceiving him into pursuing an interview with Nur, for his benefit. Money, like language, becomes a tool to exert control and influence, altering the state of one’s life and those surrounding it. For Deven, who grew up poor and without prospects, Murad’s life is enviable. Now, as a middle-class family man, Deven’s achievements are entirely his own, yet the presence of men like Murad leaves him feeling like an underachieving failure.

A final (and major) contrast in the novel is that between tradition and novelty—a juxtaposition represented in various ways. Mirpur represents pre-westernized (traditional) India and is remote and relatively underdeveloped. In contrast, the city of Delhi represents modernity, reflected by the advertising billboards Deven sees while traveling between the two places for his meetings with Nur. Likewise, the language of Urdu represents tradition, while the language of Hindi represents modernity, as it is the official language and lingua franca of modern India. Though Hindi is thriving, Urdu is not—as demonstrated by the small size of the Urdu department at Deven's university. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access