In Custody

In Custody Summary and Analysis of Chapters 8-9


Chapter 8

Sarla piques Deven by asking if he was thrown out of Delhi and that is why he no longer goes, but Deven spits back that he goes when he has work. He is rather down on himself currently, wishing he had more spirit, more verve; everything he has tried to do has ended in defeat. His father was weak and he is too; he feels like an empty hole, and this attempt with Nur has made it worse.

Deven leans back in his chair and closes his eyes, thinking of when he and Nur recited poetry together. Sarla brings a postcard in. It is from Nur and says he has written a new cycle of thirty-six couplets, inspired by his wife who told him of the suffering of women.

That night Deven cannot sleep. He had decided Delhi was over and now it is not, and he is restless. He gets up in the middle of the night and heads out for an evening walk. It seems as if he is a trapped animal and that he never had free will, even when he was younger. His interaction with the poet has shown him “that what he thought of as ‘the wider world’ was an illusion too—it was only a kind of zoo in which he could not hope to find freedom” (131). He wonders where freedom is to be found, but no answer is given.

Deven decides to visit Siddiqui the next day. He is surprised to see the spacious manor in which the professor lives, but the compound is also rather decrepit and neglected. Siddiqui is there, sitting “in the attitude of a grand landowner, a man of leisure and plenty” (133), but when Siddiqui espies Deven, he seems genuinely happy to welcome him in. Deven knows Siddiqui is a bachelor who has stayed here at their small college because he wanted to remain in his ancestral home.

Siddiqui cheerfully calls for his boy, Chotu, to bring drinks and another chair and get his young friends to come over. Siddiqui’s manners are impeccable, but Deven is secretly pleased to notice the actual state of decay the house and furnishings are in. Siddiqui brags of Chotu as a boy of great talent who can sing wonderfully. He tells Deven he is glad he has come to enliven this dull evening, and that he shall call some friends. He seems not at all like the elegant, staid man of university but now a connoisseur, a sybarite.

The men talk and drink. Siddiqui seems annoyed that Chotu is not more excited to sing for them and asks where the young man’s friends are. The boys finally come and Chotu is happier. Siddiqui plays poker recklessly but Deven does not join in. More rum is consumed; finally, Siddiqui asks to hear the tape.

Deven moans that there is no tape and drunkenly explains that the wives want payment. He thinks he'll have to give it all up. Siddiqui is suddenly alert, erect. He admonishes Deven that at his request funds were provided and the tape recorder was purchased, and if there is no tape he will be responsible for the failure. Deven cries that he has no money and Siddiqui does not understand what Nur’s home and family are like. Siddiqui does not care, telling Deven it is his business.

A moment later, with extreme contempt, Siddiqui says if he needs more money they will go to the college higher-ups. Deven is immensely relieved and unctuously thankful, but Siddiqui disdainfully pushes him out of his home.

Deven cannot fathom, later, how he was once the central character in the whole thing and is now relegated to the sidelines. Siddiqui is the stronger and Deven had to beg abjectly on his knees. His stomach feels terrible later that night, but Deven comes to realize it is not the food or drink but his own nerves making him sick.

A telegram arrives from Murad, demanding to know when recording will begin and when the transcript will be sent to Awaaz.

At the college, Deven meets with Siddiqui, who coolly tells him he is a lucky man. Deven does not comprehend this, thinking he has never been lucky. Siddiqui tells him the funds are there, set aside from the library benefactor, Lala Bhagwan Dal, for an unspecified purpose but since the tapes are going to be in the library it was allowed.

There are still two obstacles left, and one is Trivedi, the head of the Hindi department. He is a small and vicious man and is not at all pleased when Deven asks for a week off. He is hostile toward the idea of an Urdu poet and Deven’s incoherent explanations, threatening to demote him. Deven backs out of the room as Trivedi throws an inkpot at the door.

The other obstacle is Sarla. Deven has to tell her he is not going to her parents’ home with her on his vacation and is actually starting his vacation early to do work in Delhi. Sarla is incredulous and asks how she is supposed to explain this to her parents. All Deven can do is bluster that they’re illiterate and do not understand his work.

After these obstacles, an exhausted Deven wishes he could just clear out the rubbish of his life and find the “clear shining horizon at last” (146).

Chapter 9

Murad visits Deven, who wryly acknowledges Deven seems to have worked it all out. Indeed, Deven had visited the begum and given her the money, and she told him an old friend had a room for him in the last house in the row. Deven had visited the pink house, which had a back door guarded by a large man and a flashily dressed woman showed him in. The place smelt of cheap perfume and urine, and Deven urged Chiku to set up quickly because he wanted it to be done in three days.

Now Murad asks him what is taking so long, as the days are moving by. Deven seems to have no control over this and becomes irritated when Murad turns up his nose at the place. He tries to tell Murad that there is no rushing a great poet like Nur.

When it begins, Nur speaks mostly of food and drink, spending copious amounts of time thinking of meals and talking about what he wanted and liked best. The young men come with him and eat as well, and Deven has to call Murad and beg for money to indulge all their food requests. He tells him to bring cash from the magazine for incidentals. Murad comes with the money, but sullenly tells Deven he will cut his fee.

Time passes. Sometimes, to Deven’s delight, Nur would grab a book and read his work to a rapt audience. Deven urges Chiku to turn on the recorder but as soon as he does, Nur starts to complain about the evils of technology. Then he switches to poems from his youth, but Chiku still fumbles with the machine and gets none of it. When it is back on, Nur is mundanely speaking in prose of what Delhi used to be like. Deven tells Chiku to turn off the machine but the boy is dozing.

Nur and his rabble start drinking again and Chiku’s recording captures all their expletives and abuse. Deven is mightily annoyed, and feels like Chiku’s ineptitude is ruining everything. The young men also annoy him, trying to turn the sessions into drinking parties.

It is hard to separate poetry from prose, life from art; when Deven realizes this he tries to have Chiku turn on the machine even when Nur is talking about events in his life, but Nur abruptly stops his meditation. At one point Deven asks him point-blank if he was writing poetry during the period he was talking about, and Nur grows enraged at the question, yelling at Deven that he cannot produce poetry on demand. Chiku catches only Deven’s humiliation on tape.

Sometimes, though, Nur would soberly recite his verse out of the blue, but most of the time he was quoting other poets who were influential for him, such as Byron and Shelley. Deven realizes Chiku captures “three renditions of Keats’s long narrative but not a line left of Nur’s own poem that he had recited later” (157).

Once a violent quarrel with female voices breaks out downstairs, and when Deven goes to investigate, a young man laughingly tells him someone must have overstayed his welcome at the brothel. Deven hates this louche character, but all the young men join in talking about their times at the brothel. Later the young man comes to Deven and asks if he knew that Nur found his second wife here at this brothel, and maybe he is looking for a third. He guffaws while Deven incredulously wonders why he has to deal with “the stained, soiled, discolored, and odorous rags of [Nur’s] life as well” (158) as his work.

The days pass. Deven enters the room with trepidation every time. The streets are cacophonous and everyone is distracted. People constantly milk Deven for money, and Chiku rarely seems to record when Nur happens to thunder out a random poem from his glory days.

Chiku tells Deven he has to leave, but Deven shrilly tells him he cannot go anywhere until the job is done and will not be paid until then. When Deven complains to Murad of the boy, Murad says it makes sense since it was to be a three-day project and it has been three weeks. Hearing this, Deven is shocked. Murad warns him he needs to wind this all up soon so he can send the issue to the press. Deven is loath to wrap up just as he feels Nur is starting to deliver; he needs more reminisces of the literary world, of the poets and writers Nur knew, and his recollection of his own work. If Deven can get this, he will have the brilliant recording as well as enough material for the interview and even for a memoir. Thinking about the recording process, he decides to take notes himself rather than solely rely on Chiku.

In Delhi, Deven is staying at the home of an old childhood friend, Raj. Raj is not there, but his elderly aunt is, and she silently welcomes Deven in. He is not sure she remembers him, but it is a pleasant enough flat. There is another man staying there, whom Deven learns is a tailor. The man is loquacious and seems to have even greater privilege than Deven in the home, which annoys him, but the man explains he prays with the old woman and helps with other religious rituals. When he goes on and on about his customers, Deven wishes he would be quiet but he does not want to lose his space there, as it is within walking distance of where he works with Nur every day.

He thinks of his recording strategy for the next day, but nothing helps. Nur initially says he is tired and has nothing to say, but then launches into verse, which Chiku does not catch. Nur sees Deven scribbling the verse down, which no one had ever heard of, and grabs the notebook and starts writing in it himself. Nur soon throws the pencil down and says his writing days are over, drinking voraciously. He moans that women and dance have overtaken him and nothing remains. The young sycophants try to calm him. Deven tells him his poetry will live forever, but Nur does not care. He stands heavily and tells Deven to keep the entries; he is done with the recording, and at his age, all he wants is “the primordial sleep” (169).


Though Deven experiences a brief rush of exhilaration and hope when his recording project is approved and funded—and then when Siddiqui and Murad step in with financial help for the payment and the incidentals, respectively—the project is a disaster from the moment Chotu presses "Record." Chotu himself is one of the problems, as is Deven’s ineptitude with the recording technology. Because Deven does not inspire respect and is too weak to enforce ideal conditions, Nur’s rabble holds sway just as it did in Nur’s own home. The great poet is also in fine form, discoursing volubly on food and only rarely bursting into (random) bits of poetry—some of it not even his own. Though the reader might hope that excellent editing may make something out of this nothing, this will not be the case.

Let us turn now to the women of the text, two of whom appear in this section—Sarla and Raj’s aunt—and two whose presences—Safiya and Imtiaz—haunt the recording sessions. A cursory read of In Custody might not yield much to say about the female characters, or it may give the impression that it is a rather anti-feminist text; however, a closer look at these four women, even if they are viewed through Deven, offers fascinating insights into the women’s situation in post-Partition India.

To begin, Jasbir Jain’s article “Daughters of Mother India in Search of a Nation: Women’s Narratives about the Nation” says succinctly that work from authors like Desai isn’t “necessarily about female consciousness and body, or about relationships. It…looks at women-in-the-world.” Except for Imtiaz’s letter, which we will look at momentarily, we only see the four women as they externally exist in the world—a man’s world. And these women are not entirely likable or sympathetic, as Sarla is depressive and dour, Imtiaz shrill and controlling, Safiya crafty and uneducated, and Raj’s aunt a silent cipher. Desai pondered this in an interview with Vanessa Guignery, commenting, “So I found some of the women like the young Begum in the book, Imtiaz Begum, being extremely shrill whenever I gave her a voice; she sounded so shrill, like a harridan, and I did not like her very much myself. And I wondered: why am I creating such an unpleasant character if I want to create sympathy for women? Why am I not making them sympathetic? Why am I making them so nasty? And I realized that if women are kept locked up in the conditions that they are in, that is how they would be. They would be extremely nasty and shrill and make sure that they were heard somehow, even if just by making a great deal of noise with pots and pans.”

All four of the women are marginalized in a patriarchal society, denied opportunities to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Basudhara Roy sees them “sealed in silence and not just ideologically but literally defined by patriarchal discourse symbolized by the development of the narrative through Deven’s point of view.” First, we have Sarla, the long-suffering wife whom Deven often treats callously even though the two of them have more in common than he might want to admit. She has had her “magazine dream of marriage” (68) consistently dashed to pieces, and is “naturally embittered” (68). She is just a wife and mother in Deven’s eyes, an obstacle that stands in his way to being part of the literary establishment.

Safiya Begum is also a wife and mother, who has no power over anyone except Imtiaz because she is the first and older wife. Deven denigrates her intelligence, thinking it “incongruous that he, a college lecturer, should be discussing the quality of Nur’s poetry with this old woman cooking in her courtyard, watched by two goats and a child with a squint. He shifted his feet, wishing to leave the scene as an unworthy one” (123).

Raj’s aunt is only in the novel for a short bit of time, but she is impactful nonetheless. She is completely silent, a widow whose sole purpose seems to be to take care of men. Roy explains that widowhood essentially makes life all about repentance and is frequently dull and colorless. Raj’s aunt “is a case in point. Her widowed status is severely exploited by men like the tailor who at once shifts in with her, enjoying free boarding and lodging on the pretext of giving ‘Sister-ji‘ some protection and singing devotional songs to feed her religious fervor and by Deven who finds her silent and unquestioning service favourable for his pocket. And yet, she remains silent, unperturbed, the patriarchal norms of society having ingrained deeply in her the desirable and valued ideals of widowhood.”

Finally, there is Imtiaz, Deven’s avowed enemy. As she is the “most defiant out of all the women in the world of In Custody, she is the most subaltern, and objectified under the patriarchal gaze.” Deven finds her repulsive, threatening, and offensive. He initially refuses to listen to her poems, “and when he does listen to it, it is with reservations and a preconditioned mind.” When she argues persuasively that she should be respected for at least making something of herself in a world that wants nothing but submissiveness and domesticity from women, Deven cannot countenance her words. She includes her poetry for him to read and judge for himself, but it would be too much of a routing of his worldview to even undertake such an endeavor, so he tosses the letter and verses aside.

Roy concludes that even though we are only coming to these women through Deven (except Imtiaz’s letter), Desai is still making a profound statement about how men view women, what women’s roles are supposed to be, and what the effects of being pigeonholed in those roles can do to women’s psyches. It is ironic, Roy writes, that “the entire (male) action in the novel revolves around the issue of voicing–of linguistic, cultural and poetic voicing while the female voices are conspiratorially muted, silenced, stifled.”