In Custody by Anita Desai

After quite a long time, I have read another novel by Anita Desai. Of late, I felt that her novels tend to depress me and affect my mood for days, by focusing on the tragic side of humanity. To retain my sanity and joy, I steered away from her writings after Baumgartner’s Bombay. But, as I laid hands on ‘In Custody’ and had a quick glance on the blurb, something struck a chord. Thankfully, I did trust my instincts and picked up the present novel, as it has proved to be a surprise package, quite different from her other books, indulging more in good humored sarcasm and quick wit rather than a sombre sad story.

The story of ‘In Custody’ revolves around a small town teacher Deven Sharma, who despite his unlimited love of Urdu poetry, is bound to teach Hindi for livelihood. Deven is essentially an innocent man, lost in his poetic world, detached from the cunningness prevalent in money stricken greedy community. Due to his oversensitivity towards the language that is almost dead in his small town, Mirpore, Deven becomes a victim of the whims and fancies of his childhood friend Murad, a publisher of Urdu Magazine in Delhi. When he is invited by Murad to come to Delhi and interview his favorite Urdu poet, Nur Shahjehanabadi, he immediately follows his heart and lands in a trap meant to subjugate and thwart him from his mundane social life. In his endeavor to dream big, he loses whatever little he had, is estranged from his family, runs into uncountable debts, and to rub salt in his wounds, his ideal turns out to be a weak old man, struggling to cope up with ill health and dominating wives. It is too late, when Deven discovers that Nur is not at all a dedicated poet, but simply a parasite who loves to squander others money.

I found ‘In Custody’ slightly different from Anita Desai’s previous novels. Firstly, the story is not about a woman. In fact, the protagonist, villain as well as main characters are all men. So, essentially, she leaves her safe area of femininity to delve into the adrenaline packed, loud male world. Few females that I came across in the novel, including dominating Ishiana Begum and Deven’s wife are not given a center stage and are there to simply aggravate Deven’s problems, acting as foil to the main antagonists.In short, Deven shines as the real anti-hero of this novel.

Further, unlike her previous novels like Fasting Feasting, the protagonist is not suffering from any serious tragedies. He is simply a naive man, without any definite goals in life. He is made to look like a fool by almost everybody. His good nature aids in his fall and gravely pushes him into a dark recess. And, despite his continual dismal condition, he is denied readers’ sympathy as the author presents him in a lighter vein, declaring him to be aloof and ill-fit to survive in this world.

The language of Anita Desai is as usual poetic and engaging and it adds to the charm of this novel. Though, in initial few pages, my Hindu blood boiled with rage when I heard Nur and his friends calling ‘Hindiwallahs’ vegetarian monsters while placing Urdu on a high pedestal. But, as I continued reading, it became clear that the joke is indeed on them, as they who rely on the purity of a language, actually defile it with their gluttony and immorality. A language can not survive in hands of such puppets of lust and debauchery. But, Deven took a lot of time to understand this subtlety and thus loses not just his money, time and energy, but also the support of his own family and friends. He also misses my sympathy for his stupidity and in fact, earned my ire for his infallible belief in a frail, debauched, gluttonous man, allowing himself to be taken advantage of by barbaric, who are milking Urdu ceaselessly for their own petty benefits.

Though, I felt sinister to feel hostile towards such an innocent man, who deserves sympathy, not anger. And, I literally wished him luck in his endeavors to record Nur’s poetry and get some sort of relief from his miseries and I was more than happy to find him hopeful at the climax.

In short, an Anita Desai novel, where the protagonist is somehow able to conquer his flaws, and shine at the end. A laudable effort and immensely readable.

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