Saturday, September 27, 2008

"In Custody" by Anita Desai

Year of Publication: 1984
Genre: novel
Setting and time: Delhi and Mirpore, a small university town, present time.
Themes: poetry, language, culture, decadence, India, Urdu and Hindi

About the author: Anita Desai was born in 1937 in Mussoorie, India, from a German mother and a Bengali father. She was educated in Delhi, where she received a Bachelor Degree in English literature. Her first novel was The Peacock (1963). Fire on the Mountain (1977), set in Kasuli, a hill station, focused on three women and their complex experiences in life. In Clear Light of Day (1980) Desai wove the history of Delhi with a middle-class Hindu family. The central character is Bim Das, a history professor and an independent woman. Bim's memories of the family past dominate her sterile existence, she feels betrayed by her unambitious sister Tara, and replays her memories in the decaying family mansion in Old Delhi.
The author's characters in many novels are members of the Anglicized Indian bourgeoisie, whose marital problems are in the forefront. Her characters often adopt escapist ways to cope with the boring everyday life. Desai confesses that while she 'feels about India as an Indian,' she thinks about it 'as an outsider'. The author's own German half of the parental heritage is in the background of Baumgartner's Bombay (1988): a retired Jewish businessman has escaped in his youth the Nazis to India and stayed there in poverty, taking care of stray cats.
One of her most famous novels is Fasting, Feasting (1999) contrasts American and Indian culture, and male and female roles. While almost all of her novels are set in India, her most recent works to date, The Zigzag Way (2004), is an exploration of identity in contemporary Mexico.
She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times, with Clear Light of Day, In Custody and Fasting, Feasting. She is the mother of author Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss).

Plot: Deven is a lecturer of Hindi literature at a small provincial university near Delhi. He has the opportunity to interview the great Urdu poet Nur, but his efforts to interview him are ultimately fruitless. Nur reveals in fact to be an annoying old man who lives in the squalor of squabbling wives and drunken, loud-mouthed toadies.

Some thoughts: I loved Desai’s Clear Light of Day; in fact, it is one of my all-time favourites. For this reason, I looked forward to reading another of her works, but neither Fire on the Mountain nor In Custody were as beautiful and engaging as Clear Light of Day. Some aspects of this novel are nonetheless interesting. After all, we are speaking of the lady of Indian literature!
Deven is frustrated as a poet, a lecturer and a husband. Firstly, because he teaches Hindi literature even though his first love was Urdu poetry. In addition, he is stuck in a small provincial college where he is diminished and hopelessly compromised. What is more, he has married a woman chosen by his family for him and feels obliged to support her despite the loveless marriage. Deven is at the mercy of other people: Nur, his wives and even his friend Murad can control him at their wish. Deven, quite shockingly, feels that he has no other choice but to follow their orders, thus the title ‘In Custody’. He is a rather unpleasant character, like everyone in this novel. This is quite fascinating: I had never read a novel with unsympathetic and despicable characters. Well, maybe I had and I threw the book against the wall. It's a good sign that I didn't do so with this book.
On the background of the novel , there is the decadence of the Urdu language in India. Urdu and Hindi are two branches of the same language, but Urdu has Persian, Arabic and Turkish influence in addition (it is in fact the language of the Muslim community of India and Pakistan). Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and is one of the 23 official languages of India (and yes, it’s one of the 15 languages in the Indian banknotes!). The status of Urdu in India is declining and this is why Deven is forced to teach Hindi literature, instead of Urdu poetry.
The book emphasises the contrast between Muslim and Hindi culture: Deven is contemplative and submissive, while Nur is exploitative and selfish. These are of course exaggerations of the two main religions of India, but the author is clever enough and doesn't create stereotyped characters. This is ultimately a sad novel, because there is no happy ending for Deven (and I think that this mirrors the fate of the Urdu language in India). So, readers you're warned: this is a depressing novel.


  1. sinceramente questo libro non lo conoscevo, approfitterò del servizo da te offertomi per approfondirne la conoscenza..
    grazie dei tuoi passaggi e a presto.

  2. I appreciate the time and the thought you put into these reviews, Stefania. I feel like I get a much better sense of the stuff you write about than I do most places elsewhere. Brava!

    Grazie per aver letto (o almeno adocchiato) la mia recensione. Anita Desai è una scrittrice meravigliosa.

    Thank you for the compliments, I'm not sure whether I deserve them or not. I'm even thinking of writing more reviews in Italian even when I read in English... That's a dilemma I must solve.