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Last Updated on October 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

Physical and Mental Confinement

While the title In Custody suggests detention or incarceration, the characters are figuratively, rather than literally, imprisoned. Therefore, the relationship between physical and mental confinement is one of the major themes. Desai develops the theme of captivity and stasis through the three main characters: Deven, the protagonist; his long-time but disloyal friend Murad; and the famous poet Nur. Surrounded by wives and sycophants, Nur feels trapped in every respect—he is held captive by his language, age, and even his reputation.

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Meanwhile, Deven feels constrained by his job, where he teaches Hindi, even though the Urdu language and its literary canon are his passions. He wonders if he might feel liberated—even saved—by the assignment to interview the great Nur. His physical confinement is the small village where he lives and works, and his mental confinement is in his dissatisfaction with both his married and professional life. Murad seems to have considerable freedom, but his independence effectively means that he, and others of his generation, will be confined by his heritage. Although he gains permission to publish in and about Urdu, his dreams are confined to a tiny corner of someone else’s office.

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Owing to Murad’s manipulations, Deven finds himself immersed, albeit temporarily, in the lofty world of poetry, which of course is not as he imagined it would be. While he will never be a poet himself, his admiration for its magical powers is boundless. The adventure of interviewing the legendary Nur, despite not yielding the results he desired, ultimately serves an even more important purpose for Deven, which in turn aids his family. He begins to understand that his feelings of confinement are largely mental and that chafing constantly against the injustices of Indian ethnic and social politics had not improved his situation. Even a tenuously improved connection with his son—contrasted with his disappointment in being rejected as the poet’s spiritual son—enables him to appreciate his circumstances and the boy’s possibly improved future.

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The Power of Language

Another important theme deals with language. This idea is manifested both in the distinctions between Hindi and Urdu and in Deven’s attachment to poetry. As language is both the actual subject of much of Anita Desai’s novel and a symbol of the ethnic and religious differences between parts of Indian society, language is related to the arbitrariness of political divisions. Distinctions between language and the primacy of Hindi over Urdu represent the divisiveness seeding its way through post-colonial India as the nation orients itself as an independent, modern entity. For Deven and Nur, language is also a means of orientation, one which appears elusive throughout much of the novel.

Nur, a writer who earned his legendary status by composing complex, moving verses in Ursu, is something of a relic, abandoned by a modernizing nation that has left his language in the past. In the era the novel is set, the fact that he writes in Urdu automatically relegates him to an ever-narrowing tract of Indian society. He is limited to a declining readership, and his work will never reach acclaim by Hindi literary authorities. Language, then, becomes a means for wielding power and influence; those who speak and write in the dominant tongue control the literary world and its narratives, only further widening the gap between dialects and their speakers.

For Deven, who is unable to wield Urdu with the ease or success that Nur does, this makes his struggle to accept change even more difficult. He must write, teach, and think in a language that is not his own, and he can do little to change it. As such, he becomes deeply attached to Nur’s work, as it fulfills the desire for Urdu writing that he cannot provide for himself. This is why he spends so much time attempting to preserve the man’s voice and work: the instant these Urdu classics are lost, so too is Urdu itself. 

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