In Custody by Anita Desai
My Rating: 3 of 5 Stars

‘The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

It is befitting to quote Rumi to introduce the middle-aged protagonist of this book who sends swirls of a bruised dream into the air even while chugging along life with a rusted body. Deven, a teacher in the small town of Mirpore, finds his humdrum walk thrown off guard when his college buddy, Murad, a cunning fox and an accidental two-penny publisher, flummoxes him into interviewing Nur, a legendary poet of yesteryear and Deven’s idol in youth. Overwhelmed by the awarding of a chance so rare and fulfilling, his fan-heart heaves wild beats, that eventually begins sending tremors of discord and dislocation across his family, friends, circle and beyond.

His life suddenly becomes a series of road trips between Mirpore and Delhi, each carrying memories that ricochets off his present like belongings of irretrievable past. 

The allure of Desai’s narrative was in her understanding and expressing of the Indian hinterland – the soil colors, the vernacular currents, the domestic conversations, the middle class longings, the dreams as refuges and the inevitable, occasionally lame, humor to cap off a day. The chapters highlighting the struggles of a fallen star were the most splendid etchings of this work – Nur was a delight to watch; his idiosyncrasies, in his typical nawaabi style, drew angst and empathy in such equal measure that one was almost forced to stand up and tell the old man to pull down the curtains for his own good.

“He realized that he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable.”

Deven did well for the first half of the book in his dilettante’s avataar but his repeated histrionics and monochromatic ruminations reduced him to a wobbly caricature by the end of the book. The other characters of the book, belonging to Deven’s and Nur’s family, served the purpose of plain, used furniture; they filled the space but evoked no reaction.

In the end, ‘In Custody’ managed to bind me till the climax, thanks to its refreshing premise, earthy language and grains of Urdu quotes. But it could not bind me any further; I left the theatre the moment the last page was enacted, without throwing a glance back.


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