In Custody

In Custody Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-5


Chapter 4

Deven is on the bus home, trying to forget what had happened. The morning drive seems positively idyllic compared to the mixing of poetry and vomit and defacement. A milkman tries to tell him he looks ill and needs tobacco, but Deven waves him off. He decides to go straight to the college rather than face Sarla at home. He will get back on the familiar track and not stray again.

When Deven does get home, Sarla is talking to a neighbor he does not like. The neighbor sweetly and aggressively tells him he should have let his wife know where he was. Deven knows Sarla will be cold to him for many days now, and it all feels so tedious. He rebukes himself for his vainglory in trying to be part of Nur’s world. He feels relief and gratitude to be home, but also defeated.

Sarla had not been Deven’s choice for a wife, but his family liked that she was plain and penny-pinching. No one saw that she had aspirations of her own, and was dreaming of the magazine idea of marriage. This did not happen, and she was very bitter. Deven understood since he felt defeated as well. Yet this did not bring them closer. He had his poetry, and she had nothing. Sometimes when she was sullen towards him he would react childishly and angrily, but today the gloom feels appropriate.

Deven asks his son Manu to show him his school books. The boy is reluctant. But Sarla tells him too, which means the punishment period is over, for which Deven is grateful. Deven is not impressed by his son’s messy scrawls, but forebears criticizing him, and talks to the child about what he is reading. Deven then asks Manu to go for a walk with him. Outside Deven is actually pleased by the mundane world around him, made bearable by the experience he just had. He walks away from this loss, which seems to have simplified his existence. Manu prattles on about his teacher, which makes Deven smile. Manu is pleased at the effect of his story. Deven thinks normally the boy seems so querulous, but now he is pleasant and charming.

Manu sings a song about a parrot, which Deven learned from his own father. Over time he has protected memories of his father, who in life always seemed to be apologizing to his wife for being disappointing. Deven knows the feeling.

The halcyon moment soon comes to an end. Back at home, Sarla hands him a postcard which he can tell she has read because of her face. It is from Nur, who asks Deven to come back so he can dictate some poems to him.

Chapter 5

Deven meets with Murad again, protesting how he has a job and a family and only promised to interview Nur, not be “that madman’s secretary—fill his inkpots, take down his curses and abuses” (76). Murad is aggravated by Deven’s hesitancy and reminds him how great Nur is. He adds that when he spoke to the man, Nur said how Deven “ran away” but he still thought they got along well and wished Deven to know he was waiting for him so they could begin.

Deven is not convinced by Murad, and weakly protests he never said he would be Nur’s secretary and that Nur didn’t even listen to him. Murad chastises Deven for thinking Nur should listen to him, and complains that someone else would have already procured the interview for publication.

Deven finds himself back in Nur’s orbit. He enters the courtyard, which seems to be prepared for a soiree, and wonders if Nur will be reciting poetry. It is crowded and stifling, and he does not like that he is pushed further forward.

Finally, the poet comes on stage, but it is not Nur: it is a woman, powdered and painted and veiled. She sits on the divan while Nur sits behind her, sagging on a cane chair. Deven wishes he could save the poet from whatever humiliation is about to happen. He crawls over to Nur and says Murad gave him his message. Nur replies that Murad was invited too, which disappoints Deven.

A voice calls out from the audience for “Imtiaz Begum” to give them her Star poems. In a voice grating to Deven, she laughs that she needs her accompanists. As they take their places, Imtiaz is coquettish, mocking, and crass. Nur whispers that it is her birthday, and Deven wonders who she is and why her birthday matters. She is subpar, not worth listening to; why not call a trained monkey on stage instead? Deven dislikes all of this. He thought he would be with the poet and talk to him and listen to him, and now there is this cracking voice reciting poems clearly influenced by Nur. They are beautiful, yes, but an enraged Deven knows she learned everything from Nur.

The air grows stifling. Deven looks at her with loathing. How old is she? What is her background? She is dressed well but seems no better than a prostitute or a dancing girl. Imtiaz summons other women from the crowd, cleverly using one with a lesser voice and appearance as a foil. Deven admits she is cunning.

Nur says he needs to go to his bed. Deven and Ali, the street urchin who works for Nur, shove the complaining and creaking old man up the stairs to the terrace room. Nur collapses like dead weight on the bed.

Nur begins to speak, bemoaning the uselessness of birthdays. He explains the woman came to him, initially happy to sit in a corner and listen to him. But she sent his secretary away and was not used to anyone paying her attention, and she wanted what Nur had. She wanted an audience, admirers. He curses the woman in the filthiest language, and “the dark room reeked—of filthy abuse, rotten gums, raw liquor, too many years and too much impotent rage” (87).

Deven does not think this a fit subject for the poet and tries to turn the subject to Nur’s dictation. Nur roars out that he is another looter and thief, but Deven reminds him he sent him a postcard. Nur says he did write a new poem that day, but it was not new; it was one he wrote a long time ago but the lines came back to him.

Deven asks if he will recite it now for him. Nur replies he has many poems and some are lost and some were never written down, but he is too old to hunt them down. If the right person came he could tell them, but it cannot be Imtiaz. Deven wonders how he can draw this out of Nur, but Imtiaz Begum marches in, her makeup ruined and “exhaustion and rage...written in her every gesture and expression” (88).

Imtiaz rages at Nur for being jealous of her large audience. She shakes out rupees and tells Ali to come and get them. Nur says no, but she taunts him that he needs her money to buy a drink, which is how he ruined his voice and his song and why he hates her so much.

An old, wizened woman enters and tells Imtiaz in an even voice to get out of here. She tells Imtiaz she has already taken everything from Nur and she needs to leave now. Imtiaz screeches at her and leaps towards her. Deven does not want to be between the women and even though he knows he should protect the poet, he leaves.

Deven goes to Murad’s to tell him about everything. Murad does not want to hear his complaining and says he expected more of him. Deven tells him Nur is prepared to give him much more than an interview—he wants to recite old verses and new verses and maybe even his memories. Murad is then impressed and says this would be a great thing.

Deven worries how he will get it all down on paper, but Murad excitedly says he should use a tape recorder. Deven is hostile to the idea but Murad calls him a “village pumpkin” (91) and says the written line is nearly extinct. People want to hear now, and Deven needs to give Nur a drink and have him start reciting. The world will be amazed to hear the great man’s voice. This will solve all Deven’s problems, Murad promises; he will even get a book out of it.

Deven agrees with him but wonders where to get a recorder. Murad has no patience for him and tells him just to get it done.


Deven thought Nur would be “living either surrounded by elderly, sage and dignified litterateurs, or else entirely alone, in divine isolation” (51), but the reality as he finds it is the diametrical opposite. Nur lives in an unprepossessing house, if not a squalid one, surrounded by a cacophonous neighborhood. He cannot believe the great poet of nature, love, and transcendence would live in a “pullulating honeycomb of commerce” (37). He is incredulous that the poet allows himself to be surrounded by sycophants, “loutish young men” (46) who loudly make claims on the poet’s attention. It seems impossible to have a “dialogue about poetry in the center of all this garishness” (50), and Deven wonders how “out of all this hubbub, the poet drew the threads and wove his poetry or philosophy” (52).

It isn’t just Nur’s environment that bothers Deven so much: it is also the man himself. Nur eats lustily and drinks heavily, sinking into foul, pitiful drunkenness and vomiting on himself. In front of his second wife, Imtiaz, he is weak, cringing, and whimpering. When he visits Nur the second time, the venerable old man looks like “a bag, or a bolster, that someone had flung down to it. His beard looked like rather old and yellowed stuffing that had leaked out of his chest and was crumbling across it, dustily” (79). In an interview with Vanessa Guignery, Desai explained that she modeled Nur after a famous Urdu poet (she has never named him, though scholars and readers often speculate), intrigued by his art/life situation: “…that is what seemed the interesting part of him, the fact that somebody who lived the kind of dissolute life that he lived, which was not at all worthy of any respect, could still step out of that and at least, in his intellect and in his mind, create what I thought was great Urdu poetry.”

Deven initially feels he isn’t cut out for this world, deciding after his first meeting to sink back into the obscurity of his dull, predictable life. For one evening, he forebears fighting with Sarla and spends time with his son, comforting himself that “[his] shabby house, its dirty corners, its wretchedness and lovelessness” (67) were all he deserved, and it was foolish to “try and find an entry into Nur’s world” (67). But the ever-fickle, dissatisfied Deven cannot remain in this headspace for too long; the pull of something else is too great to resist, and when Nur and Murad convince Deven to return to begin recording Nur’s poems and the interview, he once more indulges in “the world of drama and revolving lights and feasts and furies” (67).

In this section, Desai introduces one of the most fascinating characters of the text, Imtiaz Begum, whom we will briefly consider here and then in more detail in future analyses. We see Imtiaz almost solely through Deven’s eyes; suffice it to say, he is not impressed. He cannot brook anyone trying to usurp Nur’s literary position, least of all a “powdered and painted creature in black and silver, coquetting beneath a shining veil” (79). He cannot handle her “excited, high-pitched voice that grated…like a fingernail on a glass pane” (80), her “raucous singing” (81), and her “stagey recitation of melodramatic and third-rate verse” (81). He finds her less appealing than a monkey street performer, and even when he admits that her verse is “very beautiful, very feeling, very clever” (82), he sees it only as a result of her stealing from Nur—“she had learnt her tricks very well, the monkey. Did not she have the best teacher in the world to put these images, this language into her head? It was clear she had learnt everything from him, from Nur, and it was disgraceful how she was imitating his verses, parodying his skills, flaunting before his face that she had stolen from him, so slyly, so cunningly” (82-83).

Though Deven has an extreme amount of hatred for the young men who surround Nur and would no doubt be critical of a young male poet trying to usurp the master, it is undeniable that Imtiaz’s gender is at least somewhat provoking for Deven. At her recitation, he feels uncomfortable because it reminds him of his wife’s family visiting their house and how all the women gathered together and made him feel small. He could not understand this “conviviality of steamy femininity that found him a figure of fun and even reduced the aged and revered figure of the poet Nur to a pathetic old cushion that spilt out old stale cotton” (83). Clearly, Imtiaz “belonged to that familiar female mafia” (83), and Deven has no patience for it. He also derides her background, considering her “no better than a prostitute or a dancing girl” (83), as well as her looks, scoffing that it is impossible to tell her age “under that floury layer of powder and glistening of lipstick and rouge…[she was] painted to look like a summer rose” (83). Clearly, most of Deven’s thoughts about Imtiaz are highly misogynistic.