The protagonist of the novel, a disillusioned Hindi professor in his thirties. Much of his life disappoints him, as he is unhappily married, loves Urdu but has to teach in the Hindi department, and has not achieved the literary fame he had always hoped for. His negative character traits include whininess, lack of self-confidence mixed with the occasional desire to overinflate his ego and lie to himself and others about his capabilities, pettiness, a proclivity for judging others unfairly, and shortsightedness. When he is asked to interview Nur, he believes his fortunes have changed, but the aforementioned shortcomings, coupled with bad luck and other obstacles, mean that this is a tedious process and an ultimate failure.
Nur is the great Urdu poet, famed throughout India. He is elderly, wears all white, has a long white beard, and his body "had the density, the compactness of stone" (40). He is excessively fond of food and drink, and he also admits his fondness for women, dance, and gambling. When Deven meets him, he lives in a busy Delhi neighborhood and surrounds himself with sycophants and hangers-on. He fights often with his two wives and seems encumbered by old age and time. While he still composes the occasional poem, he seems much more consumed with the vicissitudes of his messy life. At times, Deven finds him whining, petulant, weak, cringing, and fickle, but there are still moments when Nur surprises his audience with profound verses and utterances.
Murad is a friend of Deven's from when they were young; Deven was poor and Murad was a "spoilt rich boy" (11). He runs Awaaz magazine, a publication devoted to the promotion of the Urdu language and its literary practitioners. He is bold, crass, self-important, short-tempered, and imposing; he offers Deven the writing gig, but he often expresses his doubt in Deven's ability to carry it out.
Sarla is Deven's overburdened and unhappy wife, who was chosen for him by his family members. She was full of her own dreams of what marriage might be like, but life with Deven rapidly quashed them. She is a woman of many disappointments and regrets, prone to a sullen disposition and passive-aggressiveness when it comes to her relationship with her husband.
Deven and Sarla's young son. We do not learn much about Manu, but Deven often finds him to be a "protesting, whining creature" (72); however, he is only present through the unhappy and dissatisfied Deven's eyes, so this characterization may be taken with a grain of salt.
The head of the Urdu department at the college where Deven teaches, Siddiqui is a slim, refined bachelor who lives in his family's ancestral home, a sprawling but decrepit manor. He loves songs, dance, drink, and gambling; at one point, Deven marvels that off-campus, he is a "sybarite" (136). He is initially supportive of Deven's project, but he grows impatient with Deven's problems and failures and tries to extricate himself.
Mr. V.K. Sahay
The publisher of Murad's magazine.
A neighbor of Deven's whom he finds very annoying with her "sanctimonious and martial" (66) face and busybody tendencies.
Nur's second wife and a poet in her own right (though her skill is completely subjective). Deven finds her to be a shrill, meddlesome harridan who is mooching off of Nur, and he has no sympathy for her even when she falls ill (he believes this is made up) or speaks frankly of the difficulties of being a woman poet. He does admit she is clever, as she seems to know how to whip up her audience and to display her charisma on stage, but he otherwise sneers at her lower-class background (she may have been a dancing girl or a prostitute before she met Nur, though she claims that she was not and that Nur fell in love with her for her poetic skills).
An administrator at the college who helps procure funding at Siddiqui's request for Deven's tape recorder.
A colleague of Deven's in the Hindi department. Deven finds him rather obnoxious, and the two of them disagree on what matters more in academia and the study of languages: the future or the past (Jayadev cares more about the former; Deven cares more about the latter).
An electronics dealer and friend of Murad's. He sells Deven the secondhand tape recorder and offers his nephews Chiku and Pintu up as assistants. He is friendly, but Deven doesn't entirely trust him.
Mr. Jain's nephew and Deven's main assistant on the recording project. Though Mr. Jain boasts of his abilities, he does not prove to be a very effective tech assistant, and his fumbles and laziness often cause problems. However, he is also justifiably annoyed with Deven, who keeps him away from his responsibilities much longer than he anticipated and who has no real authority or experience in running a recording session.
The boy who works for Siddiqui. According to Siddiqui, he is a great singer, though poor and uneducated; it is implied that Siddiqui and the boy have a sexual relationship, about which Chotu does not seem to be pleased.
The head of the Hindi department whom Deven sees as a "vicious ferret of a man...[who] looked at everyone with the same expression of manic hatred and as if he were calculating the right time to dart out and bite" (144). He is very hostile towards Deven when he asks for leave, erupting in fury, threatening Deven's job, and throwing an inkpot at him.
A smiling, silent woman who allows Deven to stay with her while he is working in Delhi. He is unsure whether or not she recognizes him, but she continually provides for him in a kind and self-sacrificing fashion.
Raj's aunt's long-term boarder who apparently moved in with her to provide "protection" after Raj left, but who obviously likes the free room and board for the simple trade-off of helping her with her religious rituals. He is garrulous and annoying in Deven's mind, especially as "his position appeared to be one of slightly greater privilege" (164) than his own, even though he has a higher social standing.
Nur's first wife. She is old and uneducated, but her status as the first wife gives her power in the household. She despises Imtiaz and fervently believes in Nur's singular genius. It is Safiya who helps secure Deven a private space for the recording and encourages him to do the interview despite the difficulties, but she is also savvy enough to demand payment for Nur's time and effort.
One of Mr. Jain's nephews sent to help Deven with the tapes. He is quiet and sullen.
A student of Deven's who helps put together the final tape because he "had a gift for mechanics...[and] watched the incompetent and inefficient proceedings with a brightness Deven had not suspected in him" (179). He later becomes aggressive, asserting, along with his friends, that Deven owes him a good grade for his help.
Nur's long-suffering errand boy.
In Custody Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for In Custody is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.