In Custody

In Custody Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-11


Chapter 10

The next morning Deven is shocked to find Nur and everyone else gone. Chiku bursts out that he has wasted another day. The tall woman from the first day calls up to them, annoyed that yesterday Safiya Begum said the room was no longer needed yet here they are. The bouncer comes and tells them to leave. As they depart, the woman calls out that the bill has been sent to Safiya and they must see it gets paid.

At Jain’s shop, Murad is annoyed to hear the tapes must be listened to in Delhi before being sent back to Mirpore with Deven. Deven tells him he has to get back immediately to grade papers, and they have to listen to it now. Murad grumbles but agrees.

It is, in short, “a fiasco. There is no other word for it” (173). All of the tapes are terrible, one after the other. There is constant stopping and starting, random noises, Nur’s wandering voice in the distance, or talking of drinks. Deven grows increasingly exasperated and horrified as they listen. Finally, Murad tells him to stop it and asks why he did not listen to each tape as they recorded. Deven stutters, realizing the soundness of this question, and promises he can put something together for the issue.

Murad turns his anger to Mr. Jain about the type of equipment, then swings back to Deven for not doing it in a studio. Deven can say nothing; his confidence is shaken. Murad throws the tapes back at him and tells him he ought to try and make something of them back in Mirpore.

In a last burst of energy, Deven yells at Jain about the equipment and Chiku, and even Jain is impressed by his vigor. He offers some suggestions and says he has another nephew, Pintu, who can help.

Deven and Pintu take the bus back, not speaking to each other. If Deven was alone he would have howled. Back at home, Sarla has left the house dirty and empty, and Deven reflects that “the dereliction here was only a reflection of the dereliction of their marriage” (177).

The next day a letter arrives from Nur, complaining of eye trouble and asking Deven’s college to pay to have his eyes looked at.

For a few weeks, Deven works to catch up on his exams and grading as well as put the terrible tapes in order. Pintu and Siddiqui reluctantly help him, but Deven is unnerved by how little Siddiqui seems to care. He is “strangely abstracted” and “showed no obvious reaction to the obvious failure of the project” (178). Thankfully one of Deven’s students, who comes to see if his grade is out yet, sees the tape project and offers to help. This young man, Dhanu, enlists some of his friends to do what they can. Siddiqui gratefully fades away from the project.

By the end, it is clear that the boys are “mechanics and not miracle workers” (180). Nothing is of scholarly or even general use. The single concluded tape is a pastiche from multiple tapes with no obvious order to the fragments. Deven invites Siddiqui to hear the final product. He listens quietly and asks seriously if that is all. Deven is disappointed and says yes, but he is working on a monograph too. Siddiqui seems overcome, not knowing how to articulate his feelings.

Pintu asks Deven for his pay and bus fare back to Delhi. The other boys corner him and seem to expect he will give them good grades for their work on the project. Affronted, Deven orders them off but they are irate and one threatens that they’ll make Deven pay.

Deven receives another letter from Nur saying Deven’s college ought to give Nur’s son free education as the minimum for his working with Deven. Alone in his house, all Deven can dream of is going back to his life of “non-events, non-happenings...empty and hopeless, safe and endurable” (183).

The next day Deven arrives at the college and is told of a meeting in the staff room. Afterward, Jayadev comes up to him for tea. Deven complains to Jayadev that he is likely to get fired, but is frustrated when Jayadev waxes poetic about another colleague of theirs who went to America to teach Hindi. Jayadev is flustered by Deven’s hostility and says that they picked the wrong department and the wrong subject; they should have done science or math or computers because they would have had a future. Deven sighs that they have no future and there is only the past. Jayadev retorts that he is tired of all this talk of the past. Deven leaves.

When Deven arrives home he sees a letter from Sarla, which he ignores, and one from Delhi, requesting payment of five hundred rupees for the room he rented at the pink house. Nur writes that he had to enclose this bill from Safiya Begum, who insists it be paid immediately.

A few more days pass and there is no Sarla and classes do not yet resume, so Deven decides he must go to Delhi one more time. There he visits Murad’s office and shows him the bill. Murad is enraged and says he paid for everything already and he will do no more. Deven replies that he is not asking Murad to pay it but instead to advance his payment for the article. Nearly apoplectic, Murad says the write-up Deven sent is worth nothing. Only with the elderly printer’s intervention does Murad agree to pay Deven, but when the article appears. At this, and the extreme monsoon heat, Deven faints.

When he revives there is nothing else for him to do but leave, and he oddly feels a sense of calm because he knows there is officially no more help from Murad. On his way down the stairs, Murad catches up with him and tells him he knows he’s had a hard time, and if he will sell the rights of the tape to him then he’ll pay all the remaining debts. Deven sadly says he cannot, as the tape belongs to the college.

It is 114 degrees outside and everything is drooping and covered in dust. Deven walks slowly, briefly considering going to Nur’s house, but he walks on. He enters a small park and sits on a bench to let his thoughts wander. For a moment he wishes art and poetry were as simple as geometry and science, but if that was the case, they would no longer be perfect and it would all be for nothing.

Chapter 11

Sarla is back, sullen as ever, but Deven finds he no longer resents her presence. He does not move forward towards her, though, knowing this would undermine his position in the household. Instead, he asks after Manu, and is not even offended when she says her parents bought the boy new clothes and shoes; he deserves this slap in the face.

Sarla is actually happy to be back in her own domain, though she does not show it beyond offering to make Deven tea. He picks up another letter from Delhi sitting on the table, but this time it is not from Nur at all. It is from Imtiaz, who writes of how she knows about the recording and it was an insult to her intelligence to keep it a secret. She says she is no mere prostitute or dancing girl but rather a great poet, and she has enclosed some of her work for him to read. She urges him to remember that because she is a woman, she has had no education and no patron but clearly Nur saw something great in her. She has to prove herself to scholars and wonders if he feels it intolerable that she “should match these gifts and even outstrip them” (196). She concludes by asking if he has the courage to read her work seriously.

Deven does not feel he has the ability to deal with this “new presence” (197) that he always assiduously tried to ignore, but also knows that he cannot handle any truth that comes out of this: “If he were to venture into it, what he learnt would destroy him as a moment of lucidity can destroy the merciful delusions of a madman” (197).

In the morning Deven heads to campus to ask for a meeting with the Principal to explain the matter before the board meeting to be held the day before summer vacation. The registrar says the Principal is busy, so Deven leaves.

He realizes Nur’s letters will never stop, will keep pouring in. Back in town, he stops by Siddiqui’s house, but the house is no longer there, as it is being demolished. Siddiqui tells him he has sold the land to a Delhi businessman who wants to develop it, and he is happy to have the money. Distracted, Deven asks if he will be at the meeting tomorrow and says he is not sure what to do about the bills. He wishes Siddiqui, as head of the Urdu Department, could say something to persuade them the project was worthwhile and the bills should be paid, but Siddiqui is skeptical that they would do anything. He coldly asks Deven why he let them all cheat him; it takes hard work to not let people do that, and Deven should have put that hard work in.

Deven weakly says he tried and had his love for the poet and for poetry, which should be considered before all. There is a loud crash of bricks and plaster that cuts him off.

Deven reads another letter from Nur asking for money to go to Mecca to help save his soul.

The night before the board meeting Deven cannot sleep. He decides to go for a walk, stifled by the still air. He is not used to being out at this time and feels a bit exhilarated. He wonders if the angry student who threatened him is out and about.

He does not want dawn to come. Dawn is the meeting, the interrogation, the exposure, and the blame. He will have to pay the bills, the tape will be declared a disaster, the criticism will be intense. He may be dismissed, and what will happen to Sarla and Manu? He might have to sell her jewelry, and the boy would consider his father a failure. If the angry student jumped out with a knife it would be an easy solution, but he knew no one was coming.

He cannot think of Nur as separate from his whining, senile letters. He tries to “return to his old idolatry of the poet, his awe of him, his devotion when it had still been pure, and his gratitude for his poetry and friendship, that strange, unexpected, unimaginable friendship that had brought him so much pain” (203). The friendship still exists, even with the misunderstanding. He is yoked to Nur now. There is no end to it. Even when Nur dies, there will still be bills sent to Deven to pay.

The light of dawn is coming and a slight breeze breaks up the stillness. Deven thinks that he accepted the gift of Nur’s poetry and that meant he was “custodian of Nur’s very soul and spirit, it was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure” (204).

He decides to go home. The day is here with all its calamities; he will run and meet them.


It is probably no surprise to the reader that the recording is a fiasco and that Deven is going to be held to account for it. He knows exactly what is coming with the dawning of the new day: “…the board meeting, an inquiry, interrogation, exposure and blame. Yes, and what else? The bills would be returned to him to pay. The tape would be played and declared a disaster, even a hoax. There would be criticism…he would be censured, perhaps dismissed…he would be ruined and Sarla and Manu with him…she would have to be sent back to her parents to his eternal disgrace, and the boy would grow up to consider his father a failure” (202). These are real fears, and though Desai does not take us to or through the board meeting and its aftermath, we can speculate that most, if not all, of these things will happen.

So, at the end of the novel, our major question is: What happens to Deven internally? Has he come to some sort of acceptance of his shortcomings and his plight? What is his relationship with Nur now? Desai gives us just enough to answer these questions, at least somewhat satisfactorily. First, there are a few signs in the last couple of chapters leading up to Deven’s final ruminations that offer clues that he is coming to terms with his choices and his future. He hopes to return to his “former life of non-events, non-happenings…empty and hopeless, safe and endurable. That was the only life he was made for” (183). Deven has said this sort of thing before, but now it actually rings true given what he has endured. Second, after he meets with Murad the final time in order to ask him to pay Safiya’s bill, which Murad refuses to do, he reflects that “the certainty that he could expect no more help from Murad had a calming effect on him” (189). It is as if he is finally realizing he has to fend for himself: no one else will intervene; no one else can solve his problems but him. This is a mental clarity he has not evinced before now.

The third clue to Deven’s changing mindset is that when he returns home and sees Sarla, he thinks “he was no longer irritated by the sight of her labour, or disgusted by the shabbiness of her limp, worn clothes, or her hunched, twisted posture, her untidy hair or sullen expression” (193). While he characterizes this as “part of his own humiliation” (193), which is still cruel and selfish, it does imply he is no longer railing against the things he cannot change. And the fourth clue is that Deven no longer wants to dwell in the dreamland of “the student leaping out of the bushes with a knife [which] would be a simple solution, one to be hoped for by comparison” (202), and knows now “there was no release or escape” (203).

This brings us to the final page of the novel. Deven has admitted to himself that the relationship with Nur was fraught and tumultuous, but it still existed nonetheless. It is too hard for him to “return to his old idolatry of the poet, his awe of him, his devotion when it had still been pure” (203). Now he knows that he is the “custodian of Nur’s genius…The alliance could be considered an unendurable burden—or else a shining honour. Both demanded an equal strength” (203). Their connection will never break, even when Nur dies; he “had accepted the gift of Nur’s poetry and that means he was custodian or Nur’s very soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure” (204). Tellingly, he readies himself to face the day with “its calamities” (204), not just walking to meet them but choosing to “run to meet them” (204). Desai herself explained in an interview with Vanessa Guignery, “[Deven] has a certain freedom by having entered the world of poetry, and especially into Nur’s poetry. He has won a great freedom, and that is being out of custody, that is a kind of reward, a freedom that he has realized…[there] is a dream sequence when he thinks Nur will soon be gone, he will soon die. But his poetry will be alive and Deven is now out of custody and he is a custodian of that poetry. It has been put into his hands and that will be his new goal. He has been given a great goal in life now, to keep that poetry alive. So, out of custody, he has become now a custodian and he is proud of that.”

Critics generally see the end of the novel in the same way. Narinder K. Sharma writes that Deven “discovers the futility of seeking a perfect/idealized world,” and that “Deven may be considered as one of the most self-actualized of Desai's characters and not only moves towards personal maturity but also uses it to assign meaning to an otherwise mundane and prosaic existence.” His understanding of his relationship with Nur and his wish to remain bonded to the man and his poetry “is no longer an escapist one in intent as he realizes that the alliance entails responsibility and courage to face problems. It reflects maturity and a break with illusions brightens the prospect of achieving a direction in the real world by instilling a unique optimism. Deven possesses an orientation towards growth and a relative flexibility of attitude and this helps him in correcting his distorted perspective and accepting reality. His personal growth involves in itself the awareness and the acceptance of the limitations of human existence and finding means to achieve fulfillment within them. Deven moves from self-deception to self-perception and achieves a sense of maturity and integration. He comes to know that peace is not found in the external conditions, but within oneself, and the finding of tranquility within oneself is possible only when one lives a life of self conscious awareness of one's being, an awareness that stimulates the growth of inner resources and inner strength.” S. Vanitha agrees, stating that “Ultimately, [Deven] finds solace after discovering his identity and work in this alliance. In contrast to Desai’s earlier novels, this novel has a positive ending.” And J.P. Tripathi says, “Only a man of power can love poetry and face the greater responsibilities—in the beginning of the novel Deven lacked this power, at the end he partly possesses it and feels elevated.”