Last Updated on October 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 612
In Custody by Anita Desai follows the personal and cultural struggles of an unhappy college professor, Deven Sharma. Deven teaches Hindi (the dominant language of much of India) literature as a university lecturer in Mirpur, a city in the north of India, but finds it difficult to manage his students successfully and resents his job and its linguistic demands. Instead, he prefers reading poetry in the Urdu language—a language that struggled to preserve speakers in the wake of Indian independence movements—but was never able to follow his dreams of teaching or writing Urdu poetry.
Writing an essay?
Get a custom outline
Our Essay Lab can help you tackle any essay assignment within seconds, whether you’re studying Macbeth or the American Revolution. Try it today!
Deven is the son of a widow with little in the way of family means and is primarily a self-made man. Despite his success in rising through the academic ranks, he feels like a failure—particularly concerning his profession but also in his marriage. Deven lives a mundane, unfulfilling life, so he is overjoyed by the opportunity to interview his hero, the poet Nur. However, this experience does not change him in the way he expected. Deven is an intelligent man who bitterly regrets his inability to write with the creative fervor of Nur and other Urdu contemporaries. His love for the language and its poetry is a driving force that motivates him but also evokes negative feelings about himself, his nation, and the future. Indeed, Deven's obsession leaves him feeling deeply and irreconcilably dissatisfied with the world around him.
Deven's colleague, Murad, is a wealthy man who Deven befriended in college. He comes from Delhi, which is comparatively sophisticated in relation to Deven's more rural home. Murad is a publisher, and it is at his behest that Deven agrees to travel to Delhi and interview the poet Nur. His old friend finances Deven's travel fees and interview; it is only through his efforts that Deven's dream of meeting Nur and entering the world of Urdu comes true.
Nur Sahjahanabadi is an Urdu poet whose verses Deven idolizes. Though he was once an accomplished poet, Nur has lost the inspiration of his youth and become a glutton. He has fallen prey to the pleasures of food, alcohol, and the unsavory company of hangers-on who are interested only in Nur's money. Nur's household is in shambles, and his wife refuses his occasional recitations of the poetry from his youth. Nur's poor conditions and unwillingness to change are enough to dissuade Deven, who was initially enamored by the aging poet, from continuing with his project, but he eventually decides to record his interview with Nur. The aging poet is a man who is consumed by his reputation and struggles to find meaning in a life that no longer lives up to his expectations.
Sarla and Imtiaz
Sarla and Imtiaz are the wives of Deven and Nur, respectively. Neither woman appears to be supportive of their artistic husband or their lofty, creative ambitions. In Sarla's case, readers see that she, like Deven, has had to sacrifice her dreams. Sarla once had dreams of living a westernized life, replete with a refrigerator, car, and phone, but she has long since resigned herself to her unhappy marriage with Deven. Imtiaz is motivated by profit and fame, which she seeks through her marriage to the once-famous Nur. She is a poet herself, who often recites poetry to crowds of men. Imtiaz seeks to control her husband's affairs, and she regularly influences Deven's interactions with the famous man.
Siddiqui Sahib is a comparatively benign influence on Deven. He is the head of the small Urdu department at the university where Deven teaches and provides money for the tape recorder that Deven intends to use for his interview with Nur.