In Custody – Anita Desai

Reading morose Indian fiction is extremely trying on my nerves. It pulls me down and keeps me there for weeks after I go through any such stories. I don’t mean to say that human frailty and failings do not deserve an airing now and then. Its just that I have found that Indian authors have a knack for bringing out a deep well of hopelessness in their writings that are devoid of any stray ray of laughter or happiness to alleviate the sheer darkness of despair in the lives of their main protagonists. It is certainly a gift and definitely a souvenir of the society we grow up in but takes a strong stomach to digest when presented in all its naked, terrifying glory.

This is the story of Deven, a professor of Hindi in a private college in Mirpore, deeply dissatisfied by the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of his life and a devotee of the works of the Urdu poet Nur. Deven is the eternal victim of life’s unfair vagaries from his viewpoint, is constantly cowed down by all and sundry and is in turn a tyrant towards the few people in his life who are under his thumb, namely his wife and son. He is a pessimist and overtly sensitive to all sorts of imagined and real slights coming his way and, yet, incapable of standing up for himself except in a whining and wheedling tone that seems to get on everybody’s nerves. Deven is not a likable person. At no point in the book did I feel sorry for him or want to know him better. His obsequious hero-worship of the once demigod Nur, who has now dissolved into a shadow of his former life, and his quite unnecessary anger on his spoilt hero’s behalf were a constant rub on my already frayed nerves (have I mentioned my nerves enough already?). The glowing foreword by one of the greatest writers of our times, Salman Rushdie, states that this is ‘not at all a bitter book’ but I most humbly disagree. It is bitter and sad and with the word ‘despair’ used repeatedly to describe Deven’s state of mind, the condition of his life and that of Nur it just makes for an altogether deeply gloomy read.

It is also a story of the decline of a language whose beauty and lyrical prose seemed to elevate the most mundane of topics to mystical heights. I remember my Nanaji reading poems and novels in Urdu and having a love of that language that he never quite got over. Various members of my family still hum ghazals by famous Urdu poets and reminisce endlessly about the beauty of the language. Nur, the poet, is a metaphor for the dying language in his decrepit home and ungainly body, but his passion for the language, which he constantly harangues Deven about, seems to take a backseat to others things in his life, namely, his ego and his desire to be the centre for attention.

All in all, I was not a fan of the story at all. I see that the book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and I feel extremely guilty that I am unable to appreciate the gems hidden in the prose but also feel that I must be honest in putting down my views however simple-minded they may seem to a more discerning audience.


7 thoughts on “In Custody – Anita Desai

  1. I must now read this book. Anyone who reads your review will have the same desire. Very well written review and forthright is the only virtue which is seen through in this. I m glad you r.


  2. Gosh, Mal, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Owwww and thanks! 🙂 Thank you for writing this as honestly……it needed to be said.

    It takes skill to convey tragedy, horror, injustice without diminishing or crushing the reader’s spirit and hope. This style of writing has become quite a popular gimmick. Even a remote sniff of it makes me drop the book and run! The love for such ‘deep’ writing (aka prize nominations) possibly comes from those either never have or never will experience such life scenarios (mentioned commonly in such books) as reality. It’s easy to vote for and be attracted to fantasy……even a warped one. When a book manages to keep it real, personal and yet, inspire, it’s called an autobiography. 😉


    1. Wow! You are more succinct than me. And I absolutely agree with you, since you are agreeing with me 😉 . I read ‘Rogues’ immediately after that, an anthology of fantasy short stories by various authors and edited by George R.R Martin, and it perked me up just fine 🙂


    2. Also, when I first published the post I realized I had typed Anita Nair instead of Anita Desai in the title! Such a gaffe! Had to scramble to put it right… but not before people had already commented on it on the fb page 😦 SO embarrassing!!


    1. Hey! Yes, I did read your review and did scrunch up my brows and think why I didn’t see it that way…. I realised that for me Deven’s character over-powered any small bursts of mirth that occurred around him and which he never ever was able to appreciate. It was like being with a glum buddy who will try and constantly tell you its going to rain on the day of your birthday picnic party until you either want to sock him or just burst out crying.


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