Murad had been the spoilt rich boy with money in his pocket and Deven the poor widow’s son who could be bribed and bought to do anything for him, and although this had been the basis of their friendship, it has grown and altered and stood the test of time.
Throughout the text, we see that the relationship between Deven and Murad is unbalanced in some ways, with Murad being quite manipulative. The narrator suggests that this imbalance is something that has existed since they were born, due to their differing economic backgrounds. Murad had become accustomed to using his wealth in order to get what he wants, and this impacts their friendship negatively. When Deven has doubts about the interview with Nur, Murad shows this trait once again and manipulates Deven into continuing. Murad has the luxury of criticizing Deven for not giving his all to poetry, whereas Deven has to remind him (and himself, sometimes) that he has a job to keep and a family to support.
If art, if poetry, could be made to submit to their answers not merely to contain them within perfect, unblemished shapes but to release them and make them available, then—he thought—then—But then the bubble would be breached and burst, and it would no longer be perfect.
Deven briefly wishes that art and poetry were as easily structured, explained, and packageable as science, math, and technology. It would be so much easier, he thinks: the disciplines would be popular, supported, and well-financed, and he would be able to make inroads within them instead of laboring to resurrect something that is dying. But this line of thought is unsupportable. The arts don't work that way: they are messy, complex, ever-changing, and demanding—the essence of their appeal.
Naturally, the area around the mosque was considered the 'Muslim' area, and the rest 'Hindu'. This was not strictly so and there were certainly no boundaries or demarcations, yet there were differences between them that were not apparent to the eye but known and observed by everyone...
In this brief description of Mirpore, the narrator gives an overview of the historical troubles that had been afflicting India for some time: the tensions between Muslims and Hindus, and the identity of the nation itself. It is this historical context that illuminates the novel's central tension between Urdu, a language commonly associated with Muslims, and Hindi, the language of many Indians. Mirpore is thus a microcosm of the country.
...he heard an immense voice, cracked and and hoarse and thorny, boom from somewhere high above their heads...
Nur has both a literally and figuratively powerful voice. Here, it is the first thing Deven comes in contact with, and it is "immense" and loud. It is representative of his poetic voice, which looms over the world of Indian arts and letters. Deven's whole goal in the novel is to capture this voice and amplify it for the rest of the world. This focus on speaking, volume, and verbosity is confined only to men, however: it is considered inappropriate that women speak out of place or too loudly or too authoritatively, and their world is thus characterized by silence and suppression.
He had pictured him living either surrounded by elderly, sage and dignified litterateurs or else entirely alone, in divine isolation.
One of Deven's main problems is that he has preconceived notions of how a poet, Nur in particular, should live, and it is almost impossible for him to reconcile that with the realities of Nur's life. Deven thinks poetry of the kind Nur writes can only be composed in an isolated, rarefied environment, with no regard for the real world. He is so caught up in this impression that he's fashioned for himself that he is utterly discombobulated when he sees where and how Nur actually lives. He is full of judgment and confusion, unable to reconcile his vision with reality. This leads him to errors in how he approaches his job with Nur, as well as causing him much mental duress.
Yes, that was the climax of that brief halcyon passage. It was as if the evening star shone through at that moment, casting a small pale illumination upon Deven's flattened grey world. Of course it could not be maintained, of course it had to diminish and decline. Yes.
After the first horrifying evening with Nur, Deven comes home prepared to abandon his vainglorious, foolhardy quest. He mutely accepts Sarla's anger instead of challenging her, and he spends a truly lovely evening connecting with his son. He feels comfortable and content, back where he belongs. Unfortunately, Deven isn't actually ready to embrace this life yet. As soon as a postcard comes from Nur, he is more or less ready to jump back into the fray. He cannot be content with what he has, and he still prefers to chase after dreams that are unlikely to come to fruition.
"You could not bear the sight of someone else regaling a large audience with poetry—the same poetry you used to mouth—"
Imtiaz is a complicated character that raises more questions than answers. Is she right about Nur? Is he no longer a great poet, consumed by drink and laziness and entertaining his rabble, pitiful and disgraceful? And, as she says here, is he jealous that she is getting the attention he craves and no longer gets in the same way? Should she be commended for making something of herself as a poet in a world that thinks she should be nothing more than a wife and mother? Or, conversely, should we simply see her as a spiteful witch who wants to destroy Nur and elevate herself—a woman who was not content to sit at Nur's feet but tried to steal his friends, money, and fame? Desai doesn't really give us an answer, preferring to let readers parse the ways Imtiaz is portrayed and come up with their own conclusion.
"In fact," he plunged on recklessly, I may do more than write an article for Awaaz— I might write a biography. He has even said he might dictate his memoirs to me."
The board meeting fete may be the high point in Deven's saga of working with Nur. At this moment in time, he is going back to meet the poet and he is going to record it for posterity and for his own fame. Siddiqui is being very friendly and warm to him, and he is infused with a sense of pride and confidence. This is what leads him to this quote, which is more or less a lie, a grand embellishment of the truth. This lie helps pave the way for Siddiqui and the college's greater involvement, which arguably brings more problems than solutions to Deven. Deven seems to have trouble mediating between extreme self-doubt and flights of fancy, the latter clearly shown here.
It was really only custom that was the lasting ingredient of friendship, nothing but long custom, and custom could be a well from which one never rose, a trap from which there was no release.
So much of Deven's life seems to be a trap, and his friendship with Murad is no different. The two men had been friends for a long time, but whatever iota of real camaraderie and shared understanding once existed is long gone. This is what Deven means by "custom": they've been friends for a long time, so it simply endures of its own lukewarm volition. Murad doesn't really care about Deven and Deven finds it increasingly hard to care about Deven. Thus the friendship is moribund, and if Deven wants to live a more fulfilling life, breaking free of the "custom" is imperative.
He would run to meet them. He ran, stopping only to pull a branch of thorns from under his foot.
Deven hasn't been much of a "runner" throughout his life; rather, he has stayed still, stagnant, waiting for change to come to him and then not doing much when it does. He knows this about himself—knows he is weak like his father was. But here, at the end of the novel when there is nothing left for him, he is able to run. No one else can help him; there are no more chances. He has to face the calamities before him and not shy away. Armed with the knowledge that he is the forever custodian of Nur's work, even if it didn't look like he thought it would, he finally feels ready to do what he needs to do.
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.