In Custody written by Anita Desai, published in 1984 was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Anita Desai is an Indian novelist and a professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Two other books of hers were also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The National Academy of Letter of India known as the SahityaAkademi awarded her in 1978 for her novel Fire on the Mountain. In Custody is a novel about Deven Sharma a Hindi teacher but a lover of the Urdu language and a scholar at it. In 1993 this book was made into a film by Merchant Ivory Productions and was directed by Ismail Merchant.
Deven Sharma loved Urdu poetry from his childhood but could not turn that into a profession as it did not bring in money to run a family. He had a strong desire to write poetry for a living but gave it up. The Deven Sharma we meet is one who turns to Urdu poetry to escape from his mundane life. Deven Sharma married a woman and they soon settle into a loveless union. There are no tantrums or fights but they displayed their dissatisfaction very subtly. At the work front also he is not happy because he is making a living teaching Hindi literature – how much he would have loved it, had it been Urdu literature. Deven thinks that his life would end doing all that he did not want to do when he receives an opportunity to revive his passion.
Murad an old friend of Deven visits him with an offer to interview the great Urdu poet NurSahjahanabadi for his magazine. Nur lives in ChandiniChowk in Delhi. After a little hesitation Deven accepts as he had heard his father recite Nur’s poems and he was still reading Nur’s works. Also it was a chance to give a fresh lease to his otherwise boring life. So he starts towards Nur’s residence and his room was at the uppermost room of a tall house. As he climbs he is in almost trance as he thinks he is going up in life. However what he sees there gives him a rude shock.
The room is rundown and is strewn with trash. Nur was drunk and it also added to the repugnant surroundings. Nur also refused to give an interview for Deven as he felt that Urdu was a dying language. Both the factors forces Deven to leave the place without an interview. Murad once again convinces him to interview and asked Deven to take the help of a tape recorder. Deven loved Urdu so much that he decided to give up his disgust and made arrangements to get a tape recorder. As a lecturer he was not earning enough money, so he could not purchase a new tape recorder. So he asks money from the college. With that he goes to a Jain shopkeeper and he offers him a second hand tape recorder for that money. Deven refuses to buy it but the shopkeeper convinces him to buy it saying that it was of good quality and that his nephew Chintu would help him to operate it for the interview. Deven takes it though not wholeheartedly.
The proposed interview was not a short but one that was to take many days. So Deven had to stay in Delhi. Nur’s wife who was much younger than Nur and also manipulating agreed to find a room for Nur if he gave her some money. Deven arranges for this too with the help of colleague Siddiqui. Now he is all set to spend his time with his favourite poet. He goes to Delhi with Chintu. But he cannot record the interview and he all that he is left is with loans taken to conduct the interview.
The book In Custody deals with the search for meaning of life. Also we see the way language, here Urdu, is so associated with a community rather than the person using it. When he applies leave for a week for conducting an interview with the legendary Urdu poet Nur, the head of the department Trivedi reacts very strongly and shouts “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.” This was a clear indication that language is a religious and national identity. On the other hand Urdu is depicted as a language that is accompanied with certain trappings. There is richness to the language which is seen with the people using it for its literary value. There is rich food, liquor and many people doing nothing except reciting the poetry. Nur in spite of his old age had all these trappings in the name of being custodians of the language.
Woman is portrayed as any woman in a patriarchal society. Sarla the wife of Devan was dissatisfied with the meagre income but does not raise her voice. “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.” In her other novels, Anita Desai portrayed women as calm with poetic temperament while man were col and calculating. In this novel it is different the women are problematic especially Nur’s wife Imtiaz Begum. The man here, Deven, is willing to struggle. In the end there is a catastrophe but his spirit is indefatigable because he is still in quest for the purpose and identity in life.
There are many symbols and metaphors used. Murad, Deven’s friend is the editor of an Urdu magazine Awaz. Murad’s face is a metaphor. His face is full of pockmarks which indicate an Urdu speaker who is disfigured by his contempt for Hindi. His magazine Awaz meaning ‘voice’ is paradoxical as there is no one to listen to the voice of Urdu. The novel includes existential concerns, male dominance and language confrontations. The artistic presentation and the imaginary apprehensions make the novel very interesting reading.