Book Review

Book Review: In Custody (3.5 out of 5 stars)

Anita Desai:Book review Campusvibes

 “Aaj bazaar main pa bajolan chalo,
Chashm-e-nam, jaan-e-shoreeda kafi nahin,

Tohmat-e-ishq-posheeda kafi nahin,
Aaj bazaar main pa-bajolan chalo.”


Let us walk in bazaar in shackles,

Wet eyes and restless soul is not enough,

Being charged for nurturing concealed love is not enough,

Let us walk in bazaar in shackles.”

                                                                        -Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Anita Desai’s ‘In Custody’, talks about the dying culture of Urdu Poetry in India, amidst rampant commercialization and modernization, is set an image of the tree dying, having been separated from its roots. What we have, almost as an initial no man’s land of sorts and eventually becoming a middle ground, between reality and illusion, between desires and responsibilities, between the identity the world gives and the identity we make,  is what that represents how we have lost touch of the beauty of the language, a language which was once a marker of sophistication and respect, now left as a victim of communalism and politics.

Deven, the protagonist of the story, who is a ‘Hindi’ professor in the small town of Mirpore, has always been a two cigarette man, even after having been married to Sarla, and having a son, whom he named ‘Manu’. He lives an existence limited to himself, a man crushed by the ideals of the world he lives in, has let go of the dreams he used to have. He, although a Hindi Professor, admires the Urdu language, as the one in which he deliberates and gives language to his thoughts. But a glimmer of hope comes, a path of transcendence, an escape from the reality he unwillingly inhabits, when he gets the chance to interview India’s greatest living Urdu poet, Nur Shahjahanabad, his idol. We all have pre-conceived notions, about the people we idealize, don’t we? So did Deven, but he’s shattered to see that the man whom he thought the world of, is actually another victim of the realities he is to live. The serenity with which Deven had been associating Nur, for so long, is broken, like shattered pieces of glass, when he actually sees the condition of the man he thought of, as the god. Nevertheless, Deven tries to do whatever he can, provided the circumstances, but would he be able to manage, recording Nur’s voice and verses, for the generations to come, to listen and savor, or not, is the question that remains. Although, in the course of events, what happens is that Deven and Nur, form a very unlikely friendship, a relationship based on an alliance of sorts. While Deven aspires to become the Custodian of Nur’s genius, a task that finally gives him a sense of purpose, but he ends up putting in Nur’s custody, that realm of his identity, that realm of his existence, that he’s always wanted to actualize. Desai, portrays the development of Deven’s character, with sheer brilliance and erudition, making him one of her most actualized characters of all times, as many critics have argued.

One of the central themes in the book, apart from Commercialization and Consumerism, is the absolutely real portrayal of the female characters, whether it is Sarla, or both of Nur’s wives, Imtiaz (Younger) or Safia ( Older), all three of them try to break away from the shackles of patriarchy, encroaching post-colonial India, in their own ways. But the most successful of them, considering the formidable extent of success, is Imitiaz Begum, rude, real, and the one that actually questions Deven’s existence as a man, keeping aside the fact that Deven himself keeps questioning the validity of his existence, not so much as a man, but more as a human being. The letter Imtiaz writes to Deven, actually acts as a mirror, that reflects the reader, how actually patriarchy operates, the kind of privileges it provides to men, and how threatening do they find it, when a woman claims her own spaces and independence in those spaces. While Safia, the opportunist, breaks away from the misogynist bondage, by extorting money out of Deven’s helplessness, Sarla, his wife, emboldens herself, although to a very minimal range, in the periphery of her house.

The world of fiction that Desai constructs is separated from the world of actuality, by a very thin line, representing the dying face of tradition at the hands of modernity. In 233 pages, she manages to capture the complexity and the opportunistic nature of human relationships, our efforts to transcend and transgress, both, from reality and the bitterness of it, forming a bubble of illusion around ourselves, until that is broken and then we grow, we grow to become who we are. Sometimes, people are actually able to find as well actualize this middle ground between reality and illusion, although that is a rarity.

Name of the Book:


In Custody
Author: Anita Desai
Rating: 10
Type: Paperback






Random House India
Awards if any: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
Price: Rs.-196
Purchase link:

#Now you can also read book reviews from our Specialist Aman Sinha here!

CampusVibes is an open platform where anybody can publish. This post does not necessarily represent the platform’s views and opinions.

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Aman Sinha

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