In Custody

In Custody Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3


Chapter 1

Deven is on campus when his old friend Murad approaches him. He is slightly uncomfortable by the man’s boisterous personality and tendency towards crassness, and tells Murad he has one more class then he can talk with him. Murad booms that he came all the way from Delhi and wants to see Mirpore’s best restaurant. Deven insists Murad wait for him in the college canteen, and nervously bounds away. He wonders why Murad is here. When he gets before the blackboard he tries to compose himself as the students file in behind him.

He and Murad had been friends for a long time—Murad, the rich boy, and Deven, the poor widow’s son—but he did not like to be surprised during college hours. For a second he wonders if Murad came to pay him for the book reviews and poem he’d written for Murad’s magazine, Awaa, but then savagely tells himself not to expect sudden wealth and entry into literary circles.

He starts teaching the poetry class, looking off into the distance as he always does; this makes him a very dull instructor.

At lunch Murad grimaces at the food. The small restaurant certainly is not a great place to eat, and it is right next to the bus depot. But maybe it is better, Deven thinks, that Murad sees he is not well-off so he will pay him.

Murad does comment on how poorly lecturers are paid, and how much suffering they do for their art. Deven is cheered by this sympathy and agrees heartily, saying it is what he has to deal with. He feels bold to comment about being paid for writing, but Murad does not seem to be listening anymore. He complains about how tough it is to run a magazine, and wonders where are the readers and the subscribers? Who even reads Urdu anymore? Deven fervently tells him the magazine must be kept alive. Murad agrees and says he is working on an issue of Urdu poetry. He sneers about the “language of peasants” (15) that is Hindi, which makes Deven uncomfortable because he teaches Hindi at the college even though he desperately loves Urdu.

Deven sighs that he would love to join Murad at the magazine in this noble endeavor to preserve and promote Urdu, but he cannot give up his job because he is married and has a family. He can only write Urdu now as his hobby. Murad is indifferent and sneers that Deven is not giving Urdu what it demands, but then abruptly asks if Deven would like to send him something for a special upcoming issue.

Deven is flummoxed and excited; he starts talking about his own poems, but Murad cuts him off. He says he has enough poems and mentions the famous Nur, who, he says, will actually be the star of the issue. When Deven asks what poems of Nur’s he is using, Murad shakes his head and says he wants an interview with Nur—a full feature on his dying days. He wants Deven to do it, as he knows Deven once wrote a monograph (never printed) on him.

Deven is almost speechless and asks Murad if he’ll print the book, but Murad scoffs and says no. Deven accepts anyway, grateful for the opportunity.

Chapter 2

Deven is on the bus to Delhi out of his hometown of Mirpore, which felt like a prison to him. Outside everything is covered with dust, sometimes imperceptible, sometimes a thick cloud. The whole town looks arid, and has no history of note. The denizens spent most of their lives in the bazaars that join and separate religious shrines. There is a Muslim area and a Hindu area, with differences not clear to the eye but known nonetheless. There does not even seem to be a center to this “formless, shapeless town that had nor even a river or a hill to give it any reason for its existence” (22). People would pass through on the train, wondering how long to get to Delhi. The town thus has a deafening bustle, but it is “strangely unproductive” (23). For Deven, “its stubbornness had formed a trap...yet it was so easy to leave it behind” (23). When Deven was a student, he thought well of the countryside and used it as a refuge and reprieve. But now that he was married and no longer lived in the city, the countryside “became for him an impassable desert that lay between him and the capital with its lost treasures of friendships, entertainment, attractions and opportunities” (24).

Deven is wearing an uncomfortable green nylon shirt his in-laws had given him, which he remembered he threw on the ground in a hostile manner while Sarla watched silently. Now the shirt is crackling awkwardly. He wishes he was wearing something better for this momentous meeting with a great literary mind. It has always seemed to him that his physical condition never matches his spiritual, poetic yearning.

A man on the bus strikes up a conversation with him but turns away when he hears Deven is a teacher, not a poet. Deven falls into glumness, thinking Murad never meant any of what he had said and would certainly let him down again. Why did he think he needed to do this, he wondered, and why could he not just be content with teaching and writing his own verse? It seemed vainglorious.

When he alights from the bus, a teashop owner calls him over, saying it looks like he needs some tea after his journey. Deven decides he shall, but after imbibing is repulsed to see a dead fly at the bottom of the cup. It seems like many omens are impressing themselves on him today.

Murad comes down the stairs from the building where his office is. Deven speculates that Murad does not want Deven to see the office because perhaps the magazine is not legitimate. Murad wants to get lunch because the appointment with Nur is at three, but then confusingly tells Deven the old man can wait and he doesn’t know the area where Nur lives well. Deven is dismayed and heatedly tells Murad that he came to Delhi to see Nur and Murad had promised to take him to the poet; he spent money and his free day to be here. Murad jeers at him in response, saying he will not hold Deven’s hand and he can go himself.

Deven is exasperated and again asks for the address. Murad shushes him and says he will write him a letter of introduction and get his boy to take Deven to Nur. Mollified, Deven agrees. They go upstairs to the office and while it is not overly nice, Deven thinks that “the very act that it existed seemed a miracle and he stood summoning up gratitude for the fact out of the conflict of disappointment and amazement” (33).

Murad introduces Deven to V.K. Sahib, his publisher and the owner of the building, but they do not seem to have a great relationship. Deven once again doubts Murad, who does not seem a great enough personage to write the letter that introduces him to Nur. Murad scrawls out a note and gives it to a boy. Deven departs.

Chapter 3

The neighborhood seems like a maze. It is hot and terribly crowded, and Deven thinks in despair that the poet certainly cannot live in a place like this. The boy annoys him with his lack of understanding of how imperative haste is, but he does finally bring Deven to a house and before he even knows it, an “immense voice, cracked and hoarse and thorny” (38) booms out, asking who is disturbing his sleep.

Deven can barely control his glee and sings back that it is “him.” A female voice asks if she should open the door and the poet says yes, muttering about how he dreams of fools and is surrounded by fools. Deven tiptoes over the threshold into the house, smiling radiantly. This feels like the summons he has been waiting for for so many years, and it is even better coming from such a voice. He will be pulled up into another realm, a realm of poetry and beauty.

He climbs the stairs and enters a semi-dark room with bamboo screens to keep out the sun and a few heavy pieces of furniture. The poet is in the shadows, in contrast, due to his wearing all white. He has a long beard and is perfectly still like marble. His body is dense and compact with age and experience.

Deven sputters out that he has an introductory letter, and the poet sighs that he ought to read it to him since he can’t find his glasses. Deven reads the florid letter aloud, and Nur rolls his eyes at the “joker” he finds Murad to be. Deven explains Murad asked him to write an article on Nur for the special issue and it is a great honor to be here.

The poet is silent for a time and sighs that it is impossible to have Urdu poetry if there is no Urdu language left. Deven eagerly says they will never let Urdu vanish, and this journal is an important part of that. He says his own college is doing its part, but Nur asks if he teaches in the Urdu department and Deven, embarrassed, admits he does not. Nur laughs loudly and says Hindi rules everything and Deven is its slave.

Deven tries to explain. His father was a teacher and a scholar and loved Urdu poetry, but when he died his mother brought him to Delhi to live with relatives, where he was enrolled in a Hindi school. He took his degree in Hindi and teaches it, but he remembers his lessons in Urdu and loves it. He simply has to earn a living, he admits. Nur asks why earning a living comes first. Deven feebly defends himself, but Nur sighs and tells him to sit on the stool close to him. He says Deven has been sent here to remind him as to how far Urdu has fallen but he will endure it.

Deven begins to recite a poem of Nur’s that his father loved and that he himself still read when he felt sad or nostalgic. Nur joins him and compliments him on his pronunciation. Eventually, Nur drifts off to sleep, and Deven has an intense feeling of being like a mother, a woman; there is an intimacy in the dark room, and the feeling is perfect.

Over time other people begin to trickle in and demand Nur’s attention. There is a young boy, some young girls to deal with the crying child, and a lot of crass young men who come in insisting Nur owes them for their gambling debts. Deven is astonished at their audacity. Their talk is “blatant and ribald” (46) and offends him that they would speak thusly in front of the great poet.

Deven finally stands to leave, but his movement attracts Nur, who asks Deven to help him get to the terrace. Nur complains of his old age, nearly crying as he curses his pain and suffering. Deven watches greedy pigeons monstrously attack the poet and is horrified. The servant boy comes out with grain and Deven asks if Nur is hurt. Nur curses birds as once the poets’ muse and now his threat.

Deven finally gets up the courage to ask about the interview, but he is interrupted by a gnomish old masseuse who comes up to the terrace and begins vigorously massaging Nur. In his early days, Nur was an athlete and is still now a connoisseur of wrestling, and laments the state of the sport.

Time passes and Deven despairs; it seems like he will never get to start his interview. No one pays him attention at all, even though more and more people arrive. The lights of cinema houses and restaurants turn on outside, but it is not fully dark yet. Deven feels “crushed by the excess of noise, light and people, trying to be unobtrusive himself, and succeeding with no effort at all” (50).

Nur is gone for a time but comes back freshly bathed and clothed. He engages with the loutish men who are clearly unemployed bohemians looking to find inspiration in Nur’s company, but Deven hates them all. He remembers this type of circle from when he was in college but never expected Nur to entertain it. He thought Nur would be “living either surrounded by elderly, sage and dignified litterateurs, or else entirely alone, in divine isolation. What were these clowns and jokers and jugglers doing around him, or he with them?” (51).

It is hard for Deven to tell if Nur is enjoying himself, but he does keep holding out his glass to be refilled and inspecting all the food brought out. Nur himself eats in an undignified fashion, and Deven averts his eyes.

The poet’s attention wanders. The men there seem to think Nur needs either a clown to entertain them, or enjoys when they argue heatedly. Deven cannot believe Nur has the energy he does to spend on these types of people. He wonders how Nur can write poetry in this environment. The men there are talking of poetry, but one says the time for poetry is over and Nur ought to turn to journalism.

Deven is disgusted by the conversation, and how everyone seems like they are acting assigned roles. But soon Nur takes another drink and effectively quells the disputes, and Deven is amazed at how powerful Nur and his divine poetic mission are. Things quickly take a more negative turn when Nur points to Deven and says he is going to speak for him. This terrifies Deven, who feels his joy burn away and instead is only embarrassed, especially when Nur mocks him for teaching safe and comfortable Hindi.

Thankfully someone else starts talking, and then Nur is saying a boy of his can recite poetry, and then a drunk man starts to recite his own poetry. Deven watches Nur steal away and starts to follow him. It is hard to keep up with the old man.

What happens next is still unbelievable to Deven. He hears a sound of a child crying so he takes the veranda stairs to a lower floor and a courtyard. The doorways are dark, sometimes with furtive movements. Suddenly, a woman screams and Nur races forward. He trips over a body—the body of Nur—with a shrieking woman with dark-rimmed eyes and a blood-red mouth standing over him. Nur is lying in his own vomit, weakly complaining of a pain in his stomach, while the woman is cursing him.

When she sees Deven she spits at him that he ought to clean up after his idol. Nur was once a poet but now he is nothing, not even a man, she proclaims wildly. Deven does not know what to say, and she becomes more enraged at his submissiveness, railing at Nur for marrying her to make her live in a pigsty. Deven sees the wailing child as well and reaches to start cleaning up with a handful of papers he finds. Nur protests pitifully that he is ill, and Deven adds Nur is old as well, but the woman does not care.

Finally, Deven slips away as they argue, drops the disgusting wad of towels with vomit into the gutter, and flees. His memories of this event change sometimes, but when he is being honest, he will admit to himself he “abandoned the poet in his agony, desecrated the paper on which he wrote his verse, and run” (62).


From the very beginning of the novel, it is apparent to the reader that Deven is a deeply insecure and unhappy man who is constantly dreaming of transcending his mundane and unsatisfying life to enter the rarefied world of Urdu literary fame. But if the reader thinks that the interview with Nur is Deven’s ticket out, the first encounter with the great man casts an extreme amount of doubt.

To begin, Deven is a man filled with “anxiety” (9), “uneasy” (11) at the loud Murad’s intrusion into his quiet college life. Importantly, Desai writes that Deven “tried to construct an authoritative teacher-self out of his jolted nerves and distracted ways” (11)—he has to try, as authority does not come naturally to him. and even then, he is a “boring teacher who could not command the attention, let alone win the regard, of his unruly class” (13); this is foreshadowing the events with Nur.

Deven’s lack of confidence is partially rooted in the fact that he is in a career that gives him no joy. He wishes desperately to be contributing more fully to Urdu scholarship, but he is encumbered by his domestic life and has to keep his job teaching Hindi to support his wife and children. Both Murad and Nur are unsympathetic to Deven’s situation, protesting that poetry is more important than anything else, but it does indeed make sense that Deven has obligations and, unlike Murad, has no family money to enjoy the luxury of working on Urdu full-time. Critic S. Vanitha notes, “The sense of isolation and self-exile often clutches Deven’s psyche. He feels alienated not only from his immediate environment but also within himself. Life becomes a burden for him. Deven’s sense of isolation has two noteworthy undertones. He wants to break the custody by interviewing the great Urdu poet, Nur. He wants to break away from his marginality. At the same time, he feels ill equipped and incapable of adjusting himself to the emerging intricacies of life and society.”

Desai uses imagery to reinforce her characters and her themes. The critic Karen D’Souza writes, “Desai frequently refers to herself as a writer predominantly focused on the interiority of her characters and the universality of themes. In an interview she stated that: ‘By writing novels that have been catalogued by critics as psychological, and that are purely subjective, I have been left free to employ, simply, the language of the interior’…Desai’s oeuvre…is peppered with characters and evocations of mood that are constructed through patterns of rich, visual imagery.” Madhusudan Prasad agrees, stating that “Desai resorts generously to imagery to vivify psychic states as well as the distinctively individual consciousness of her highly sensitive, introverted characters and the complexities of human relationships, scenes and situations, resulting in a remarkable textural density” and “ Never otiose, Desai’s imagery, which is chiefly anticipatory, prefigurative or demonstrative in nature, is highly functional.” In terms of Deven, Desai uses the imagery of his town, Mirpore, to underscore Deven’s lackluster interior and exterior lives. The dust that is a “constant presence, thick enough to be seen and felt” (19) is oppressive, just like Deven’s existence. The town is “obscure and…forgotten” (20), with no real sense of history. It seemingly has no center; it is “formless, shapeless” (22), and a place that people only want to quickly pass through, “peering out of smeared train windows and wondering how much longer it would take to Delhi” (22). Finally, it is “in a state of perpetual motion. There was really more of a bustle than a doldrums and it was often deafening. Yet the bustle was strangely unproductive” (23)—an effective image to reflect Deven’s own sound and fury that signify not a whole lot.

It is no surprise, then, that Deven is absolutely over the moon to meet his literary idol and to get to dabble in the world he thinks he should belong to. Climbing the staircase to Nur’s (it is a comically circuitous and frustrating journey to get there, again foreshadowing the mess that is to come), he thinks that it is as if God had brought him here, that “This, surely, was the summons for which he had been waiting all these empty years” (40). He is about to enter another realm; “He mounted the stairs as if sloughing off and casting away the meanness and dross of his past existence and steadily approaching a new and wondrously illuminated era” (40). In the next section, we will explore exactly what Deven finds here, which is perhaps the furthest thing away from nirvana.