In Custody By Anita Desai

In Custody By Anita Desai | In Custody Summary & Critical Analysis

In Custody By Anita Desai
In Custody By Anita Desai


            In Custody is a novel written by a well-known Indian author, Anita Desai. It was written in 1984 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel is about the search for one’s identity and meaning in life. There are many major and minor characters in this novel. Among them, Deven Sharma is the protagonist of the novel, who was a Hindi Literature professor in Mirpore (Delhi) at Lala Ramlal college.

But his true interest was in Urdu poetry. Devan gets the opportunity when his brash childhood friend Murad hires him to interview his idol, the famous, Urdu poet Nur Shahjenabadi. The novel is also a war between the languages – Urdu and Hindi, innocence and corruption, good and evil, loyalty and deception, success and failure, and poor and rich.

Characters Of In Custody

Deven Sharma

                Deven Sharma a Hindi Professor in Mirpore in Lala Ramlal College is the main character of this novel. He loves Urdu but has to teach in the Hindi department.


            Sarla is Devan’s unhappy wife, who was chosen for him by his family. She was full of her own dream of what marriage might be like, but life with Deven rapidly quashed them.

Nur Shahjenabadi

            Nur is a great Urdu poet, famed throughout India. He stands for the father and protector of Urdu poetry. Safiya Begum is Nur’s first wife.


            Murad is the friend of Deven. He is a manipulative character who uses Deven for his own benefit. He exploits Devan and deceives him throughout the novel. He runs Awaaz Magazine, a publication devoted to the promotion of Urdu.

Imtiaz Begum

            Nur’s second wife and a poet. She is hungry for fame and wealth.

Siddiqui Sahib

            The head of the Urdu department at the college where Devan teaches.


            Devan and Sarla’s young son.

 Mr. V. K. Sahay, Mrs. Bhalla, Mr. Rai, Jayadev, Mr. Jain, Chiku, Chotu, Trivedi, Pintu, Dhanu, and Ali are the minor character of the novel.

About Anita Desai

            Anita Desai, the most known post–independence Indian woman writer in English mostly concerned with the questions of the survival and existence of women in her novels. Desai published her first short story when she was only twenty years old. Her first novel was Cry The Peacock. Her other novels include – Voices In The City, Bye-Bye, Blackbird, Where Shall We Go This Summer, Fire on The Mountain, Clear Light of Day, and The zigzag way. In addition to novels, she was written books for children. Desai received many awards – the Sahitya Akademi Award, The Guardian Award for children’s Fiction.

            Anita Desai in one of her interviews stated her initial intention of not including women characters in her, In Custody.

            I thought I would try to write without any female characters but it proved impossible. I could hear them screaming in the background, banging on the doors, being very hysterical.

Analysis of the Novel

            The novel opens with Murad paying Devan a surprise visit in Mirpore, the dusty unremarkable town near Delhi where he lives and teaches. Over lunch, they discuss the decline of Urdu and how it has now been replaced by Hindi, the Language of Peasants Murad’s magazine Awaaz is dedicated to Urdu Literature. Even though Deven teaches Hindi but his true interest is in Urdu poetry. Devan resents that Murad still hasn’t paid him for his last few articles in Awaaz, but when Murad asks him to interview Nur Shahjenabadi for the next issue he eagerly agrees.

            Another day, Deven takes the bus to meet Murad in Delhi. Old Delhi’s Chandni chowk market. They go to Nur’s house and Deven finds Nur lying on a couch upstairs dressed in white, surrounded by tattered books. Deven explains that he’s writing an article about Urdu poetry, but Nur declares that Urdu is already dead. Nur starts reciting one of his poems. The poem was one of Deven’s father’s favorites.

            Deven is astonished to watch Nur drink glasses of rum. Nur’s second wife Imtiaz Begum stands over him, screaming that he wastes his time drinking instead of taking care of his family and poetry. Deven takes the morning bus back to Mirpore, where he decides to go straight to work. When he finally makes it home his wife Sarla refuses to talk to him. She hates his feebleness and low salary and she hates her simple-mindedness.

            Then Deven gets a postcard from Nur thanking him for His decision to work as my secretary. Deven returns to Nur’s House where he joins a huge crowd assembling to watch a poetry recital. He is dismayed to see Imtiaz performing, not Nur. In the middle of the show, Nur stands up and walks out, and Deven follows him. Upstairs Nur lays on his couch, starts drinking, and complains that Imtiaz is betraying him by writing her own poetry.

He explains that Deven can help him write down some old unpublished poems. Suddenly Imtiaz arrives with her skirt full of rupee and mocks Nur for giving up on poetry. An elderly woman Nur’s first wife Safiya follows Imtiaz inside and attacks her. Deven runs out and returns to Murad’s office where Murad proposes that he tape-record Nur’s new Pomes instead of trying to write them all down.

            Back in Mirpore, Deven meets his college’s sole Urdu professor, Abid Siddiqui, and explains that he is interviewing Nur – and might even collect Nur’s unpublished poem or write his biography. But Deven admits that he needs recording equipment, so Siddiqui  Slyly convinces the college registrar, Mr. Rai to give him funding. In Delhi, Murad marches Deven into an electronics shop, where the owner Mr. Jain gives him a second-hand Japanese recorder and offers his nephew, Chiku, as a technical assistant to run it.

            The next time Deven visits Nur, there is another massive crowd in the courtyard because Imtiaz is deathly ill. Deven explains his plan to record Nur’s Poetry but Nur says it won’t work because Imtiaz will overhear them. In her room, Imtiaz warns Nur against reciting poetry. For a third time, Devan panics and flees Nur’s house. But on his way out, he meets Sofiya, She explains that Deven must rent another space if he wants to get an interview with Nur. She offers to help for a price. But Deven doesn’t have any money.

            Safiya rents Deven a room in a brothel down the street from Nur’s house. Deven and Chiku set up the recorder and then Nur arrives. Nur finally starts reciting some poetry but Chiku falls asleep and forgets to record it. Over the following weeks, Nur comes to the room every day, but he spends more time telling old stories and arguing with his follower. Whenever he does recite a poem, Chiku misses it. One day, Nur finally performs a new poem and even writes it down in Deven’s notebook, but then he walks out of the room and never returns.

          At Jain’s shop, Deven finally listens to his recording and realizes that they are mostly full of cracking sounds and laughter, but not Nur’s voice.  Deven visits Delhi to demand his pay from Murad but Murad refuses. Back in Mirpore Deven opens a lengthy letter from Imtiaz, who explains that she knew he was recording Nur. She includes several of her own poem for Deven to reads. But he doesn’t read the poem.


            Thus, the novel In Custody deals with various issues that were prevalent during the times when it was written. Devan does not understand the scheming nature of Murad. Deven does not fit into the culture of evil where people eat, drink, and make merry. He has a love for pure poetry of the Urdu language and he pursues that in the novel passionately so as to preserve it from being endangered. The novel seems to be about Deven’s fight against himself, as well as the society in which he does not fit.

Related Topic: Cracking India

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