In Custody is a novel written in the year 1984 by a renowned Indian-American author Anita Desai. The book is about searching for identity and meaning in life. In the first chapter, the audience is introduced to a young man named Deven Sharma, who feels dissatisfied with his life and wallows in his sense of failure. Setting aside his life ambitions of becoming an Urdu poet, Deven settled in a loveless marriage with his wife who also feels discontent but afraid to speak her mind. To add to his frustrations, Deven makes his living teaching Hindi literature at a small college despite his first language being Urdu.
Ever since he was a child, Deven dreamed of becoming a great Urdu poet; he listened to his father recite different poems by a famous poet, Nur Shahjehanabadi, and had fallen in love with Urdu poetry. Now he feels trapped, with no purpose whatsoever, praying for someone to throw him an olive branch. While drifting in his failures, an opportunity to revive his life comes along. Deven is asked to interview the distinguished Urdu Poet Nur Shahjehanabadi.
Deven cannot believe that he is going to shake the hand of his idol and a master poet. He feels nervous and excited at the same time, and he believes that this is a chance to revive the elements that gave meaning to his life. With the support of his friends and the university, as well as a lot of whining and wheedling on his part, Deven prepares to interview Nur. The college provides all the equipment and finances for the interview, with the explicit expectation that Deven will produce something of serious value.
Nur lives in a rundown Delhi apartment building on the uppermost floor. As Deven steadily climbs the stairs, he feels his life is about to change for the better. However, as he makes his way up, his hopes start dwindling: the place is rife with garbage, drunkenness, fighting, and grime. When Deven eventually gets to Nur, he finds a frail, physically and emotionally tortured man surrounded by sham followers who live off his prosperity without offering anything in return. The poet’s wives constantly quarrel with each other, while the others drink away what’s left of the poet’s wealth. Deven attempts to connect with Nur to no avail; he even pays for a new location for the interview, but the drama in Nur’s life keeps coming up. Despite numerous attempts to make the interview work, it is a failure; as this becomes clear to Deven, he begins to question his self-worth and his love for Urdu poetry.
Eventually, Deven gives up on the project and prepares to face his colleagues and the college administration, but something in him has changed. After long and sleepless nights, Deven has something of a divine awakening: he realizes that he and Nur are practically the same and are inextricably linked now.