In CustodyIn Custody by Anita Desai
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This one was okay. The first book by Anita Desai I was reading and shortlisted for the Booker back in 1984, it was a drifting storyline with a lead character who gets tiresomely repetitive in his hopelessness and despair.

Deven is a Hindi teacher in a nondescript college in dead-end typical small town India (here the town is called Mirpore, a few hours from Delhi) who has lived most of his life in unerring timidity and allowing himself to be bullied into doing things he didn’t want to or couldn’t do. His life of disillusioning loser hood has enveloped his wife also, who had grand dreams of a telephone, a refrigerator and a car, probably typical of a certain generation of middle class Indian women from small towns. Now they live their days in an atmosphere of silent remonstration, with Deven taking out his frustrations and resentment on his wife (for daring to having her own frustrations) by being a bit of a bully himself at home.

It is into this that an old ‘friend’ comes down from Mumbai. Murad publishes an Urdu magazine and wants Deven to interview and get the thoughts of Nur, one of the best living Urdu poets. The problem is, though, that Deven has to interrupt his idyllic frustrated existence and make repeated trips to Delhi for the same. And once he gets to Nur’s place in the heart of the bustling and claustrophobic Chandni Chowk, he finds that Nur is a shadow of the person he expected. Old, and almost infirm at times, he is regaled every day and night by a group of sycophants who mooch drinks and food of him, and is controlled mostly by his wives, one younger and fiery and the other older but cunning in her own way. It is in this atmosphere that Deven has to get legible information and poetry from Nur while at the same time handling the canny Murad, who is basically a bully taking advantage of Deven’s timidity. Though, reading about him, one doesn’t feel much sympathy at Deven being taken advantage of. The guy comes across as a total loser who seems capable neither of reform nor reinvention. Sure, the character may have been intended as such, but there is only so much of pathetic-ness one can take. The ending hints at maybe some kind of light in Deven’s eyes, but hardly enough to justify liking the whole thing which went before.

There is definitely an emphasis on the dying culture of the Urdu language, and the state of its academics and writing. Deven is driven by his passion for Urdu poetry to slide deeper into the muck everybody else seems to be making for him and seems incapable of actually being assertive in his dealings. I guess, on a broader level, this can be applied to numerous regional languages and the state of their learnings as compared to those of much more career worthy disciplines like the Sciences.

A decent read, but the lack of empathy I was able to feel for any of the characters in the story makes me unable to really recommend it. So far, I’ve not been a fan of either Desai. Kiran’s Booker winner, The Inheritance of Loss, was also a dampener.

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