Although the novel is essentially driven by its characters rather than its themes, each character represents a theme, and the key one of these is the decline of Urdu and the loss of an old culture, symbolized by Siddiqui, Deven's fellow Urdu lecturer. Everything he stands for is encapsulated in the Urdu culture; consequently, he feels as though he is losing his identity.
Nur is an Urdu poet, but he realizes that the language is slowly dying out. Eventually, it will be studied as something historical and ancient, rather than kept alive. He is aware that he is a representation of things that are dying, and this seems to be making his life unravel as well.
Deven is similarly concerned about the death of Urdu. He sees Urdu as something more interesting and romantic than modern life can offer. With the slow death of Urdu comes an almost Westernization of India, of which not everyone is in favor. Therefore, the death of a language, and the culture that is dying with it, is seen as a sort of cut-off point between the way things used to be and the way that they are becoming.
Bullying and Manipulation
Most of the characters in the book are highly manipulative and do not get along well with others. Murad is a bully; he is also very adept at playing Deven for a fool and knowing exactly what to say in order to get him to do what he wants. As a publisher, he wants Deven to interview Nur so that he can make money out of it, but he tells Deven that the interviews will be helpful in assisting scholars of Urdu to learn, knowing that this more altruistic take on the interview will persuade Deven to go back to Nur's house.
The more peripheral characters in the book are also extremely manipulative. Nur's wives don't get along; their relationship is acrimonious and built on a foundation of competition. His second wife is particularly driven to steal his thunder and to make herself more important, using his fame as a poet to do so.
The female characters in the novel aren't particularly likable. None of them are educated; some are shrill harridans, while others are downtrodden housewives. In Deven's eyes, they are mostly obstacles in his way of getting what he wants. But Desai isn't making an anti-woman statement here: she is trying to show what a patriarchal society can do to women: how their expected silence makes them want to make noise, how they simmer and sulk in their rage and disappointment, and how they try to eke out whatever sort of authority and autonomy they can.
Life vs. Art
Deven constantly faces a tug-of-war between life and art. He has familial obligations and bills to pay, but he wants desperately to live in the rarefied world of arts and letters. Other characters, such as the bachelor Siddiqui, the wealthy Murad, and the ancient poet Nur, have the luxury of doing so, but Deven does not. He wastes his time, money, and credibility trying to cross over to that other realm, and he ends up losing everything in the effort. By the end of the novel, he has come to a tacit understanding that he has to be realistic about his situation and make room for both life and art.
Deven certainly has several external factors working against his success at the recording project, but many of his issues are his own faults and flaws. He is, as Siddiqui calls him, "craven," as well as fickle, weak, selfish, whiny, and passive. For most of the novel, he tries to blame other people and situations for his problems, adopting a "woe-is-me" attitude and refusing to learn from his mistakes. However, by the end of the text, he has actually progressed enough to have a degree of self-realization: he knows the "calamities" that are coming his way and he will meet them; he has made peace with Nur and their relationship; he has decided to live his life as it is, not live in some fairy tale.
City vs. Country
As the novel is essentially told through Deven's eyes, what we read of the city and the country is colored by his own biases. He finds Mirpore and the country to be dull, dirty, and colorless; he finds the city to be crass, loud, and overwhelming. He feels out of place in both, which symbolizes his larger disconnection from the world. But beyond Deven, we can see that Desai is neither privileging one nor the other, instead exploring the idea of what sort of milieu gives rise to, promotes, and sustains art. She is showing the tensions consumerism, modernism, and the Partition brought to both settings.
The Future vs. The Past
Deven and Jayadev's conversation about the future vs. the past is an important one. Deven says, "We have no future. There is no future. There is only the past" (186), while Jayadev scoffs that he is tired of dwelling on the past and it is "the only thing we know in this country...I am sick of that. What about the future?" (186.) Desai doesn't answer this question, instead posing it to readers. Should we stop being obsessed with the past and devote ourselves to a better future? Or, by focusing solely on the future, do we lose what made us who we are as well as the knowledge we need in order to avoid making the same mistakes again?
In Custody Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for In Custody is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.