Literary Shelf

Anita Desai’s In Custody:

Dynamics of Motive and Mode

Indian Literature in English has journeyed a long way to achieve its present glory and grandeur. Beginning with the trio of Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand; today it is assimilated in the rubric of Post Colonial Literature. At present it is enriched by a sizeable number of women writers read and acclaimed all over the world. Their works offer penetrative insight into the complex issues of life. The fictional concerns of these women writers are not limited to the world of women and their sufferings as victims of male hegemony they also express social, economic and political upheavals in Indian society. Among these women writers Anita Desai has earned a separate space for her particular attention towards psychological insight and existential concerns. Her sensitive portrayal and understanding of intrinsic human nature makes her writings conspicuous and captivating. She herself admits her preference for the internal world of the psychic space that has always been a major concern in her fictional writings: “My writing is an effort to discover, underline and convey the significance of things. I must seize upon that incomplete and seemingly meaningless mass of reality around me and try and discover its significance by plunging below the surface and plumbing the depths, then illuminating those depths till they become more lucid, brilliant and explicable reflection of the visible world.”1  Apart from concentrating on the problems of women and the way they impact their mind, Desai’s novels have an irresistible appeal for the treatment of the external world of politics impacted by momentous historical events. For example, her Clear Light of Day (1980) and In Custody (1984) fictionalize the life impacted by the tragic saga of the partition. The present paper is an attempt to analyze the dynamics of motive and mode that make In Custody an artistic achievement

Desai’s treatment of the questions related to the social role and implications of language forms the central thrust of the novel. Her motive becomes amply clear when she replies to a question related to the theme of the novel in the following words: “I was trying to portray the world of Urdu poets. Living in Delhi I was always surrounded by the sound of Urdu poetry, which is mostly recited. Nobody reads it, but one goes to recitations. It was very much the voice of North India. But although there is such a reverence for Urdu poetry, the fact that most Muslims left India to go to Pakistan meant that most schools and Universities of Urdu were closed. So that it’s a language I don’t think is going to survive in India ………There are many Muslims and they do write in Urdu; but it has a kind of very artificial existence. People are not going to study Urdu in school and college anymore, so who are going to be their readers? Where is the audience?2 . The fictional discourse in the novel presents a critique of the essentialist nature of the understanding of language that treats it as related to particular communities. Her treatment of the problematic of language culture divide also marks a rejection of the view that considers langue as the real custodian of any language. In the process it marks a preference for Bakhtinian view of language that treats the parole or language in use as the real language. Language in such a view, instead of being related to any community in particular, is related to the people who use it irrespective of the community they belong to. Another view about language that finds fictional expression in the novel is related to the use of language - its teaching or learning – is not always a matter of communal responsibility rather it is more related to one’s vocation.

In the novel Deven, a lecturer in Hindi in Ram Lal College in Mirpore is assigned the job of interviewing an old Urdu poet, Nur, living in Old Delhi. He loves Urdu and Urdu poetry but has to choose Hindi as a subject for teaching because of its value in the job market. . He says: “I am only a teacher……..must teach to support my family.”3  Otherwise he has great love for Urdu poetry and fondly remembers his father’s liking for it. On the other hand the people like the head of the department of Hindi in his college associate language with community and dislike Deven’s love for Urdu. When he applies in person for one week’s leave to conduct an interview with the legendary Urdu poet Nur Shahjahanbadi; the head of the department, Trivedi, bursts out: “I’ll get you transferred to your beloved Urdu department. I won’t have Muslim toadies in my department; you’ll ruin my boys with your Muslim ideas, your Urdu language. I’ll complain to the Principal, I’ll warn the RSS, you are a traitor.4 Trivedi’s violent reaction to Deven’s request clarifies how language becomes a signifier of religious identity and national loyalty. This linguistic confrontation leads to communal riots. The novelistic discourse here gains greater relevance in terms of contemporary language base politics gaining significance in political and social affairs. The novel presents the Hindi /Urdu controversy that involves communal implications and does not allow the languages to become objective mediums of communication. This controversial issue taken up in the novel has been aptly explained in the following words: “The Hindi –Urdu controversy by its very bitterness demonstrates how little the objective similarities between language groups matter when people attach subjective significance to their languages. Willingness to communicate through the same language is quite a different thing from the mere ability to communicate.”5 The political meanings attached to these cultural activities resulting in communal divide is rejected in the novel.

At the same time the false beliefs of the people who developed a highly romantic attitude towards poetry and language also stand exposed in the novel. The poets and writers no doubts play a significant role in the progress of a language but their romantic notions tend to play havoc with it. Instead of understanding the use value of language some of them tend to attach a romantic notion of false pride in being a poet or writer in a language and, like Nur, consider certain forms of behavior as essential. It is perhaps because of such an attitude towards poetry and language that Nur, in his senile old age, still lives with the aristocratic habits, feeding his pigeons, gulping rich food and gathering around him a group of admirers whom he supplied rich food and liquor. Treating themselves as the custodians of a language, and by implication a culture or cultural group people like Nur indulge in glorifying their role. Even genuine attempts of persons like Deven are spurned by Nur simply because he fails to understand language freed from established views associating language with certain cultural groups or persons and artists like himself : “Urdu poetry...How can there be an Urdu poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is dead, finished...So, now you see its corpse lying here, waiting to be buried…Those Congress-wallahs have set up Hindi on the top as our ruler. You are its slave. Perhaps a spy even if you don’t know it, sent to the universities to destroy whatever remains of Urdu, hunt it out and kill it…It seems you have been sent here to torment me, to show me, let me know to what depths Urdu has fallen. All right then, show me, and let me know the worst.”6 The sense of doubt and personalized feelings related to Urdu as a language with Nur himself mark an understanding of language in narrow terms. The novelist’s artistic achievement here lies in keeping the fictional discourse free from such views about language. The fictional presentation of different perspectives about language also finds extension into existential issues related to broader human experience. How the novelist has brought these diverse forms together can be explained through her use of different fictional devices .

Nur’s ailing body symbolically represents the sickening state of Urdu. The psychological pain of Deven is alter-ego of Nur’s physical pain. Deven is torn between the conflict of dreams and duty. Murad, editor of Awaz is in some better position than Deven as he has not surrendered to Hindi. He wishes to crown Urdu its coveted crown. His accusation of Deven as a traitor haunts him perpetually. Whenever he enters Urdu arena, he feels like an alien. Sincerity of purpose, zest, hero-worship of Nur help Deven in no way to realize his dreams. Deven’s failure is reminiscent of Desai’s tragic vision. Her novels never end in the fructified results. In Custody adds one more name to the series of novels which show an ultimate catastrophe waiting for her protagonists. The sordid reality of the world clashes with Deven’s brittle world of dreams. The collision smashes his hopes. He is caught in the muddle of linguistic-politics. The debunking of Urdu from mainstream is equally painful to him. But his Hindu religion stands in the way to his loyalty. His meetings with Nur made him clear the essential absurdity of life and Desai’s existential interpretation of human predicament. Who was Nur? A poet? An idol? A god? Or perhaps he was Deven himself wedged in the labyrinth of unexpected reversal of incidents.

Apart from this, the use of different symbols and metaphors marks the way the dynamics of motives and mode functions in her novel. Symbols and metaphors are the beautifying components of the novel. For example, Murad’s face serves as a metaphor. He is facially disfigured by pockmarks; he epitomizes an Urdu speaker who is tainted by his contempt for Hindi. The title of his magazine is Awaz meaning voice. Paradoxically, nobody around is interested to hear the voice of Urdu. It incorporates the sighs and cries of a diminishing language. When Deven visits Nur for the first time, he witnesses the symbols of death and decadence on his way. A dead body of dog, a floating fly in the cup of tea and a group of crows feasting on the dead dog: “He turned and peered out of window to see if the dog lay on the road, broken, bleeding or dead. He saw a flock of crows alight on the yellow grass that grew beside the ditch, their wings flickering across the view like agitated eyelashes.7 The dead body of dog stands for the putrefying condition of Urdu language in the hands of its new masters, it also bears a resemblance to Nur and his exploitation by his cronies. The setting and locale of Nur’s residence are symbolic of dereliction and filth. Deven finds himself entrapped and could not find an exit from the mazy surroundings. Nur’s residence was in Chandni Chowk which looked like a market in a nightmare. The peeling, stained walls of the office buildings wore a squalid look. Deven could not imagine the dwelling of his hero among these ruins. The stench of unclean lanes, overflowing gutters, quacks with their powders held his breath. Chandni Chowk had witnessed the mutilated bodies of its residents during partition. It seemed as if someone has pulled out its liveliness and cursed it with morbidity. Siddiqui, the head of Urdu department is symbolic of past grandeur of Muslims. He is not entrusted with the job of custodian of Nur’s poetry because he himself is living on the fringe of the society. Murad chooses Deven for this vocation as he belongs to the emergent group i.e. Hindi. Siddiqui’s home in a dilapidated villa has an air of impeccable royalty and majesty. He is the silent spectator scrutinizing the shifting interests of the society. His ancestral home is his lucrative commodity which he plans to sell to some landlord. He is unmarried and spends lavishly on himself and his friends. He is patronizing and encourages his servant for his melodious voice.

Symbol of surahi appears twice in the novel and in different contexts. First it appears when Deven is singing to himself the poetry of Nur & is nourishing a lingering hope in his heart to make his life worthwhile with his friendship of Nur. Surahi an earthen jar, container of water becomes a reservoir of nectar of life, in search of which Deven is traveling. It holds the promise, fulfillment of Deven’s hopes. At another time, towards the end of the novel, surahi becomes a signifier of impending summer, like a doom waiting for Deven, slicing his throat. Like Eliot, Desai only suggests, never confirms. There are thunders in her world but not a shower for rejuvenation.

In the same way, Desai’s presentation of man woman relationships in a patriarchal society reveals her concern and understanding of different forms of woman’s experiences through an effective interplay of motive and the medium The women in the book seem vicious, specially the enraged young wife of Deven’s hero, the poet Nur. Just as the male characters are entrapped in an unsuccessful world, the female characters feel frustrated within a patriarchal society that reduces them to clinging to these men who fail to provide them what they want. Deven’s wife Sarla hates him and feels disgusted at his failures. All her dreams of a luxurious life are dashed to the ground because of his meager income. But the way she registers her protest is nothing more than a symbolic dissatisfaction with her lot. It may be because of the centuries of serfdom that runs through their blood that these women fail to rebel openly.

Sarla never lifted her voice in his presence- countless generations of Hindu womanhood behind her stood in her way, preventing her from displaying open rebellion. Deven knew she would scream and abuse only when she was safely out of the way, preferably in the kitchen, her own domain. Her method of defence was to go into the bed room and snivel, refusing to speak at all, inciting their child to wail in sympathy.8 Deasi is an advocate of the legitimate rights and freedom of such unfortunate women.

Anita Desai has conveyed her women characters’ fundamental dependence on men through her lexicon and tropes of mastery, command and domination. Her women sometimes do attempt to assert their independence and self- sufficiency, but their quest for identity is thwarted at significant junctures ……No woman in Anita Desai’s novels ……..has been fortunate enough to free herself from the shackles of femininity.”9

The character of Imtiaz Begum is problematic. She belongs to the family of dancers, and is second wife of Nur. She is bold enough to call Deven a jackal who has come to relish the blood out of Nur’s body when he will be dead. She calls universities “asylum of failures”. Her powdered and painted face, reptile like movements disgusted Deven. Her insistence on telling her story to Deven is symbolic of Indian Women Writers who tell their own stories and that of other women. In her previous novels, women protagonists were of poetic temperament and male characters were cold and calculating: Maya-Gautam, Monisha-Jiban, and Sita- Raman, all represent such couples. But, here, the situation is reversed. Imtiaz Begum and Sarla mock at the poetic sensibilities of their husbands because they fail to meet their corporeal needs. The bold letter of Nur’s wife towards the end of the novel presents her as an icon of New Woman. She gains respect as a character by asserting her rights and abilities, Deven never manages such fiery rebellion.

The elegance and floridity of her Urdu entered Deven’s ears like a flourish of trumpets and beat at his temples while he read. The essential, unsuspected spirit of the woman appeared to step free of its covering, all the tinsel and gauze and tawdriness, and reveal a face from which the paint and powder had been washed and which wore an expression that made Deven halt and stumble before he could read on.”11

Deven did not have the courage to read the poetry of a woman, because she is a woman. Her bold questions point out the bias of a sexist society:

Are you not guilty of assuming that because you are a male, you have a right to brains, talent, reputation and achievement, while I, because I was born female, am condemned to find what satisfaction I can in being maligned, mocked, ignored and neglected? Is it not you who has made me play the role of the loose woman in gaudy garments by refusing to take my work seriously and giving me just that much regard that you would extend to even a failure in the arts as long as the artist was male? In this unfair world that you have created what else could I have been but what I am?12

Her angry statements make the reader reevaluate what they previously had only seen through the eyes of a male character. By making women’s aggravation understandable, the primary unsympathetic portrayals of women characters turn out to have been of Deven’s and not the author’s perceptions. This new image of woman makes prominent feministic concerns in Desai’s works. Nur’s wife is the representative of a feminist who explains the change that has taken place in Indian society that new woman will tell her story: “Not long ago a woman who spoke about herself was considered a loose woman. To voice a pain, to divulge a secret, was considered sacrilege, a breach of family trust. Today, voices are raised without fear, and are heard outside the walls of homes that once kept women protected, also isolated. Some of the women who speak here have stepped out. Others, who have not, are beginning to be aware, eager to find expression. But let them speak for themselves.13

The novel incorporates language- confrontation, male- dominance and existential concerns of Desai. All these components are bound with the beauty of language which never fails to satisfy the aesthetic sense. Though there is an ultimate catastrophe waiting for Desai’s protagonist, yet it is his will to struggle which makes him indefatigable, a traveler in the never ending quest for identity and purpose in life. The interaction of the fictional concerns and their artistic presentation makes the novel an artistic whole and stands testimony to Anita Desai’s maturity as a novelist.

1.   Desai Anita, Replies to the Questionnaire Kakatiya Journal of English Studies, 3,
      No:1, 1978, pp.1-6.
2.   Costa, M. 2001. “Interview with Anita Desai”

3.   In Custody by Anita Desai, Penguin publishers.1985. p.43.
4.   Ibid p. 145
6.   Ibid . p.p. 42-43
7.   Ibid. 131.
8.   Ibid.p.26
9.   Ibid.pp.145-146
10. Cronin, Richard. ‘Imagining India ’. New York : St. Martin ’s Press, 1989.
11. In Custody by Anita Desai, Penguin publishers.1985. p. 195
12. Ibid.p.196
13. Unveiling India: A Woman’s Journey, New Delhi : Penguin Books, 1988, p. 109.    


More by :  Supriya Bhandari

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