The college has been preparing for the annual board meeting, and now the day has come. The students have a holiday but the faculty are milling about, all hoping to be plucked from the group and introduced to someone important. They nervously keep an eye on everyone’s movements and placement.
Deven is enjoying himself until he realizes the Principal is right behind him. He is tense and turns to greet the next person who chances to come his way. It is Siddiqui, the head of the Urdu Department. He is the only faculty member in the department, which no doubt would no longer exist if not for a promise to the college’s descendants.
Siddiqui greets Deven warmly and they make small talk. Deven is frustrated to hear another faculty member left to edit an Urdu magazine in Beirut, wondering why he cannot write for a magazine in India. He then mentions Murad’s special issue coming up, and that Nur is going to have some unpublished poems in it. Siddiqui is impressed, so Deven leans in closer and whispers that he is the one asked to interview Nur to go along with the poems. Siddiqui almost doesn’t believe him, remembering how when he first met him he did not see much of note in the “craven young man” (98).
Deven explains he has been to Nur’s house many times, and then, recklessly, adds that he might even be writing a biography of Nur. This is hard for Siddiqui to believe, but he admits to himself that stranger things have happened.
Deven says he is going to tape-record it for the magazine, which intrigues Siddiqui. He asks Deven to tell him more of this as he has never heard of a biography on tape before. Deven babbles on and on, feeling tremendously proud and happy. He says he might have copies made and send them to the Urdu departments all across India. Murad says it is the rage, after all, and students will get to hear the great poet’s voice. Siddiqui is delighted.
Deven suggests Siddiqui ask the Principal for money to buy the department recording equipment, and help begin the era of electronics in the college. The two of them continue to laugh and discuss this idea, and when Siddiqui says he will go see the chief minister of the Principal, Deven cannot believe how smoothly everything is going.
Siddiqui approaches the chief minister, Mr. Rai, while Deven waits in the background. He is not sure how the proposal will be met, as the department rarely receives the attention of the others. While he is waiting, a member of his own department, Jayadev comes over and teases him about being gone in Delhi so often now. This annoys Deven and he pulls away. Rai and Siddiqui are nowhere to be seen; only the bored Sarla is there, saying they ought to go home.
The next day Deven receives a note summoning him to Mr. Rai’s office. He feels as if everything is coming together, and is grateful to Nur for summoning him. When he arrives for the meeting, Mr. Rai is with the Principal and running late. Deven finds him later, and cannot believe what happens—Mr. Rai gives him the sanction from the Principal to buy the recording equipment. It seems like magic, but it is Nur who has made this happen; it is Nur’s name that “opened doors, changed expressions, caused dust and cobwebs to disappear, visions to appear, bathed in radiance. It had led him on to avenues that would take him to another land, another element” (105).
Deven and Murad visit the shop to buy the equipment. Murad offends him by scoffing that he knows what the college can afford and it’s not the best equipment, but nonetheless leads the way with the electronics dealer, Mr. Jain. The dealer brings out his nephew, Chiku, whom he says will help them, and shows them a secondhand piece of equipment that he claims is the best. Deven feels left out as the three of them start making the deal.
Murad notices him sulking, and Deven admits morosely that he knows nothing about tape recorders. Mr. Jain smiles that Chiku will help and be his assistant. Deven is unsure about it, especially as Murad does not know the boy the way he knows the dealer, but Murad encourages him that it is a good thing and Chiku can worry about the technicalities so he can concentrate on the conversation with the poet.
It takes a lot of courage for Deven to return to Nur’s place, and he tries to choose an hour when Nur will be alone. Yet when he arrives the courtyard is full of people, many of whom seem more like family.
Deven comes before Nur and is again struck by being in the presence of the great man. Nur weakly cries that Deven has come because he’s heard that Imtiaz Begum is ill. Deven says no, but is secretly pleased. Nur says it is because of the terrible strain of performing, and that she collapsed that night. Though Deven cares nothing about the woman, he tries to appease Nur and says maybe she has a virus. Nur jumps on this and thinks she must go to a hospital.
This makes Deven even happier—the thought of that woman no longer being in the house so they can conduct the interview in peace. But Nur then moans that she will never agree to go, and has already reused even though she had a high temperature. Deven is frustrated with Nur’s “weakness and gullibility” (113) and thinks he needs to give him a stiff drink to shore him up.
When Deven ventures to suggest they begin the interview, Nur becomes calm and pensive, speaking of Time crushing people into dust and how they must struggle against it while they can. He mentions an old poem he wrote and how he wishes his secretary was around so he could dictate it. Deven leans forward and urgently tells him he has arranged to record for him. Nur is confused and thinks recording means singing, and as Deven begins to explain the project, he starts to realize that he does not actually know anything about recording. It is odd that Murad, Jain, and Chiku did not mention a studio, because wouldn’t that be better? He suddenly feels “inadequate, incompetent and unconfident” (114).
Deven speaks up anyway, telling Nur they just need a quiet space and his assistant will record; he need only to speak of his ideas, his poems, his life, and it will become a wonderful article in Awaaz. Nur mournfully says that he cannot recite the story of his life while she is here; it would disturb her. Deven bursts out in indignation, asking why she will not allow him to speak his poetry when she recited hers. Nur shushes him, shocked, telling Deven Imtiaz is right—he is a fool, people do not want to hear him. He cries and throws himself down in fright, telling Deven to get the idea out of his head.
Deven cannot believe he has come so close. At that moment, Ali comes and says the begum is calling for both Nur and his visitor. Nur and Deven look at each other; how did she even know he was here? Was everyone in the house a spy? Deven follows Nur, apprehensive.
Inside Imtiaz is in bed, her face lined with fever and fatigue. There is a bandage on her head and it looks like she was the victim of an accident. Her acolytes are there tending to her. She calls Deven over and tells him she has inquired about him, and she knows his kind—”jackals from the so-called universities that are really asylums for failures, trained to feed upon carcasses” (118). Deven mumbles back that he comes to hear Nur recite. She states Nur will not, and Nur agrees pitifully. She screams that he will and writhes about in her bed while Nur tries to calm her. Deven leaves the room, trying not to flee this time.
Outside Deven feels a sense of relief but a larger sense of regret that he did not officially arrange anything. He knows he has to get Nur away from the house, but where? Near the courtyard door a small voice interrupts his thoughts, and he sees a small girl. The call was from behind her, and he enters into an inner courtyard he did not even know was there. He recognizes the old woman from the night when she silenced Imtiaz.
The woman, whom Deven realizes is one of Nur’s wives, chuckles about the quarrels upstairs, and that Imtiaz is a fine actress but used to be a dancing girl. Deven, against his better judgment, asks what Imtiaz wants. The old woman says she wants to get rid of him. Deven is shocked but slightly flattered. The old woman adds that she hates all of Nur’s disciples and that she has heard Deven has come to write a book and wants to stop it. Deven corrects her that it is an interview. She hisses that Imtiaz wants Nur’s fame and that Deven cannot let her stop the interview.
Deven is desperate and asks when and how he can do this. She thinks, and then she says he needs a room. He agrees and asks if Imtiaz can just leave the house. She cackles that she will not leave and has planted herself there like a witch. She says that they will get a room not far from here and when he comes to visit her, as he sometimes does, they will go to the room. Imtiaz will not be happy but she can do nothing, as the old woman is the first wife.
They agree to do this in a week and Deven says he will send a message when he is ready. As Deven prepares to leave, the old woman calls him back and sharply tells him not to forget about payment. When he looks skeptical she angrily says why should Nur do all that work for hours and starve while the people from the college feast? He must have sufficient payment or Nur will not be there when Deven comes.
Deven walks away, thinking of both the wives. He “would not have known how to choose between them. He had no way of satisfying or evading either. He would have to abandon the project” (126).
One of the most important secondary characters, Siddiqui is in contrast to Deven due to the fact that he is in the Urdu department, has more confidence, lives only for himself (he is a bachelor, free of what Deven sees as the straitjacket of marriage and fatherhood), and has cachet with the college administration. But Siddiqui’s characteristics and advantages cannot make Urdu a popular subject. The department, which solely exists because of an endowment, only has one faculty member—Siddiqui—and, as the narrator explains, “if a few Muslim families had not stubbornly remained behind [after the 1947 Partition, in which Pakistan became an independent nation] and had had young ones to send to the college to study Urdu, the department would have remained as empty as the cell from which the condemned prisoner is extracted to be hanged” (96).
The conflict between Urdu and Hindi, along with the former’s status as a dying language, is a prominent theme in the text. More information can be found about Urdu in the “Other” section of this ClassicNote, but in brief, it is a language that was utilized predominately by Muslims and educated, elite Indians, and warred with Hindi in the mid-20th century to be India’s official language. It did not achieve this status, and, as Desai herself notes in an interview with Vanessa Guignery, “it [was] a struggle to keep [Muslims’] language, Urdu, alive” after they left for Pakistan. She saw that Urdu was “threatened, and that an effort needed to be made to preserve it.” In another interview with Magna Costa (quoted in Amina Yaquin), Desai stated that Urdu was “a language I don’t think us going to survive in India…There are many Muslims and they do write in Urdu; but it has a very artificial existence. People are not going to study Urdu in school and college anymore, so who are going to be their readers? Where is the audience?”
As Bhasha Shukla Sharma suggests, Desai seems to admit to the “defeated cause of promotion of Urdu poetry, which has few takers.” One of Nur’s loutish followers—who should, of all people, be promoting Urdu—says loudly, “I am telling you the time for poetry is over. To feed the Hindi-wallahs with Urdu poetry is like feeding cows with—hunks of red meat. Turn to journalism instead, Nur Sahib” (53). Yet another young man says bluntly, “Urdu is supposed to have died, in 1947. What you see in the universities—in some of the universities, a few of them only—is its ghost, wrapped in a shroud. But Hindi—oh Hindi is a field of greens, all flourishing” (56).
Quite bluntly, Yaquin writes, If Nur is the embodiment of Urdu, then the language’s fate seems dire indeed. Yaquin cogently notes that Nur’s “bodily ailments are a mirror to the sickened state of Urdu,” and, furthermore, if Deven is Urdu’s custodian, then the reader has even more reason to doubt its survival. Similarly, when Siddiqui chooses to demolish his manor so a developer can come in and modernize the place, it symbolizes the demolition of Urdu itself: “Like the dying culture he represents, Siddiqui lives in a deteriorating haveli which reemphasizes the decay of Urdu and the peripheral position of Muslims in the modern Indian environment. Desai’s references to Siddiqui’s lifestyle disturbingly reproduce the colonial constructions of a morally decrepit Muslim aristocracy collapsing from drink, debauchery and decay. The inevitable death of this self-indulgent aristocratic Muslim culture is symbolized in the destruction of Siddiqui’s house when the 'decaying' haveli is razed to the ground by developers and is lost in the metaphorical swirling dust that absorbs Mirpore.” Ultimately, Yaquin concludes, “It appears Deven’s journey has ended before it has begun because the language he wishes to save is already dead.”