Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Book Review : In Custody by Anita Desai

As part of my goal to read 20 Indian books this year, I was exploring good listicles on Indian books. Most of them had similar items but this one - struck a cord. On the occasion of India's 70th Independence Day HT had chronicled a list of must read 70 books. The author shares the choosing criterion in the end and I liked it. With this, I decided to selectively pick a book from this list and I chose In Custody by Anita Desai.

In Custody is a story of Deven who is a Hindi professor in a university at Mirpore but his true passion lies in the Urdu language. Through his friend Murad, he gets a chance to interview Nur, a famous poet, but now living in small lanes of Chandni Chowk with no recent works.  Deven is short of money yet decides to take up this endeavor for his love and respect to the language of Urdu, and a chance to meet the great poet. However, Nur is now living in an unbearable state  of penury with failing health, just like the state of Urdu language. He is surrounded by jobless sycophants who just eat and drink at his house. He denies to give any interview to Deven and ridicules his endeavor. The story traces the journey of Deven as he ploughs through to make this long distance interview work.

From the first few pages itself, Desai's warmth language and fluidity makes this novel very easy to read. We know much and more about these characters in few paragraphs where other books take their entirety. Desai has loftier goals set for her. The idea behind In Custody is to understand how in India, a man, insecure and under-confident, someone who has made compromises in all aspects of his life so far, stumbles upon a chance to follow his passion, struggles to do so both emotionally and in the real world. Pessimism and insecurity goes together in this book creating an undercurrent of gloom.

Deven faces one hurdle after another but at every junction, he gets help some genuinely good while other trying to use him; he fails to differentiate between the two and ends up paying no gratitude to either.  Desai also throws in the complicated husband-wife relationships that exists in typical Indian society.  The whole volume if rewritten from the point of Deven's wife Sarla, will make Deven a villain. Yet she endures him.  The relationship between Murad and Deven is even more complicated to the point that it is not clear how they are even friends.

This book is a study of India in 1980s and continues to be today. Urdu language is in decline and so are the poets and the artists. Cunningness is growing and relationships are getting complicated. Women are trying to find a place in the man's world either under them or through sidelines. Summers are getting unbearable at one end and old havelis are falling down. Markets are getting crowder and people short tempered.  Universities are short on budget and bureaucracy is the machinery. Money is the driver of everything. In all this, a tailor lives in the house of a widow who feeds him as a random act of kindness. A language student has done correspondence course in electrical to have a shot at some kind of job.   Desai's prose is easy and even in the novel's bleakness, her words are kind and make this emotional journey bearable.

This is not an easy read but read you must.  Rated 3.5/5