Deven returns home the next day to find Sarla sweeping the dusty floor. She asks if he is still going to Delhi, and he asks why she didn’t tell him she was coming back. Pointing to her unopened letter on the table, she says that she did. He realizes that they both feel miserable and humiliated; he considers embracing her, but he knows that he will lose his power in the marriage if he shows vulnerability. She explains that Manu is showing the neighbors the new clothes that her parents bought him, and Deven realizes that he might never be able to buy Manu anything ever again.
Deven and Sarla return to the stale, unsatisfying, but familiar rhythms of their everyday life. As usual, they choose stalemate over compromise. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Deven makes this choice, because he prefers having the upper hand to having a happy marriage, and Sarla has no option but to accept it. Instead, she continues to quietly remind him that he ought to treat his family better: by pointing out that he didn’t open her letter, she emphasizes that he doesn’t view her as an equal, and by pointing out that her parents bought Manu clothes, she reminds him that he doesn’t provide enough for the family materially.
Deven sits in his broken chair, and Sarla asks if he wants tea. She’s happy to be back home, in her comfort zone, where she actually has some power. Annoyed that Deven isn’t doing anything, she complains that he never got the sweeper to clean the house, but he’s too tired to respond. He decides to read his unopened letters instead.
It’s telling that Deven doesn’t even fix his chair (which represents the shortcomings and dissatisfaction that define his life in Mirpore). It’s also significant that Sarla immediately offers Deven tea—as a Hindu housewife is supposed to—and says that Deven should have hired the sweeper (rather than just cleaning the house himself). This underlines how strict traditional gender roles are in India: even in the direst, most unstable circumstances, it’s unthinkable that a woman like Sarla would stop taking care of the house—or that a man like Deven would start do so.
The first letter is a long series of sheets in elegant Urdu, but it’s not from Nur. It’s from Imtiaz, who writes that she knew about the recording the whole time, and Deven “insulted [her] intelligence by [his] deception.” She explains that Nur fell in love with her because of her poetry, not her dancing, and while her poems may not be as good as Nur’s, she also never received any formal education. Unlike Safiya and Nur’s friends, she was a true “intellectual companion” to him. She attaches her poems, which she predicts Deven will be too cowardly to read. She claims that he doesn’t take her work seriously because her intelligence threatens his sense of superiority over women. And her prediction is right: Deven cannot bring himself to read her poems—to recognize her intelligence and humanity.
In her final appearance, Imtiaz speaks her part and solidifies her role as the novel’s conscience: she directly calls out Deven’s sexism and the way it colors his ideas about Nur, his work, and literature in general. Deven should not be ashamed that his idol, Nur, married a dancer who wrote poetry, rather than a disempowered “traditional” Indian bride like Safiya or Sarla. (Notably, Imtiaz’s knowledge about Deven’s interviews strongly suggests that Safiya was taking advantage of him by charging him rent for the brothel room.) Deven’s refusal to read Imtiaz’s poems shows that, for all his growth in the novel, his sexism won’t budge. He, too, misses out as a result. After all, Imtiaz’s poems could be even greater than Nur’s—and Deven could be the one who “discovers” her for the academic world. But rather than taking a chance on her work, he prefers to cling to Nur’s—even though Nur has given him almost nothing useful. Of course, the novel is speaking out against sexism in Indian society and the literary world through Imtiaz. After all, Desai has had to fight many of the same prejudices as Imtiaz throughout her career. While her earlier novels focused on sexism and patriarchy more directly, In Custody largely leaves them in the background, in part to show readers what it looks like from men’s perspective when society normalizes women’s oppression and exclusion.
The next day, Deven goes to the college to schedule an appointment with the Principal so that he can explain and apologize for the tape. On his way out, the mailman hands him another letter. The Principal is busy, so Deven goes to visit Siddiqui instead. But his house isn’t there: it’s being demolished. Deven finds him by a tree, and he explains that he sold the land to a businessman from Delhi.
Siddiqui’s decision to sell his house is a metaphor for independent India’s fateful decision to collectively embrace modernity over tradition. Siddiqui has grown tired of living in the crumbling ruins of his ancestors’ mansion—just as India has grown tired of defining itself by its centuries-old precolonial history. So, he decides to abandon the past, embrace the future, and (presumably) move to Delhi. But the core of the novel’s plot—Deven’s desire to preserve Nur’s poetry—shows that Desai wonders whether there might be a middle ground, in which Indians can bring the best of their past into the future (instead of having to choose between them).
Deven asks if Siddiqui will come to the board meeting tomorrow and help defend his research, but Siddiqui says that he’s busy and that the tape is worthless. Deven shows Siddiqui the room bill, and Siddiqui says the college will never pay it (but offers to try persuading them). Deven complains that everyone cheated him, from Murad and Jain to Nur and his wives, but Siddiqui says that Deven shouldn’t have let them. Deven begs Siddiqui to recognize that his underlying motive was his love for Nur and his poetry.
Siddiqui tells Deven the hard truth and fully gives up on helping him. This leaves Deven feeling even more profoundly disappointed than before, because after losing hope in Murad and Nur, he thought that Siddiqui was the one person left who truly valued literature for its own sake. While Deven is right to say that Murad, Jain, Nur, Imtiaz, and Safiya cheated him, he portrays himself as a helpless victim who had no power to defend himself, which simply isn’t true. Siddiqui points him to a more reasonable middle ground: loving literature doesn’t have to mean sacrificing everything in one’s life for it.
On his way home, Deven opens the letter he received that morning. It’s from Nur, who complains that his pigeons are dying of a mysterious disease. He claims that he needs money to go to Mecca before he meets the same fate. Suddenly, Deven’s rickshaw nearly crashes into one of his students, who mutters: “Meet us behind the college and see what we do to you.”
Fully aware that Nur is preying on his sense of pity, Deven ignores the letter. But, unlike with Imtiaz’s poems, he at least reads it. This is because Imtiaz’s poetry poses a deep threat to Deven’s sense of self—if it’s as great as he fears, this would show him that his reverence for Nur was misguided all along. In contrast, Nur’s childish requests for money pose no such threat, because Deven knows that they are insincere, and he will not agree to them. And while his students’ threat is totally separate—and much more imminent—it’s based on the same principle: taking advantage of Deven’s love for literature to manipulate him into giving them what they want.
That night, Deven can’t sleep, so he paces around the courtyard, smoking. After hearing Mrs. Bhalla’s friends singing, he decides to leave the house and go walk down by the canal. He doesn’t want the day to come: he will have to deal with the board meeting, his tape, and his bills. He worries that he will have to sell Sarla’s jewelry to pay the bills, and that Manu will grow up thinking of him as a failure. As he fantasizes about his student showing up with a knife and killing him, he realizes he has reached the spot where he and Manu saw the flock of parrots.
The novel’s ending closely mirrors events from past chapters. The scene of Deven anxiously pacing around his house and hearing Mrs. Bhalla sing comes straight from Chapter Eight. And then he goes to the same spot by the river where he shared a precious moment of connection with Manu in Chapter Four. This repetition suggests that Deven is once again falling into the errors of the past—and the novel’s conclusion will emphasize whether (and how) he can break free from the patterns that have prevented him from advancing, both personally and professionally. (While being murdered might be one way to avoid repeating the same errors and facing the challenges of the day ahead, there simply must be a better option.)
Deven decides that he must hold onto his good memories of Nur, like the time they recited his work back and forth to each other. He tries to remember how it felt when he was wholeheartedly devoted to and grateful for the man. And then he realizes that, just as he became “the custodian of Nur’s genius,” so Nur “place[d] him in custody too.” He imagines Nur’s funeral and asks himself if even death could sever their connection. He looks down around him, noticing a whirlpool in the canal and the first glimmer of twilight reflecting off the grass. He suddenly feels proud to be the “custodian of Nur’s very soul and spirit.” Inspired and emboldened, he turns around and starts running home to face the day’s challenges.
The novel closes with the moment of personal transformation that Deven was waiting for all along: he has an epiphany about his relationship with Nur, which gives him the courage and moral clarity that he needs to finally take charge of his own life. In the past, he alternated between unrealistic optimism and defeatist pessimism: he either assumed that everything would work out in his favor or simply gave up and blamed other people for his failure. In no case did he take control of his life and his work—until now, when he realizes that he is responsible for Nur’s legacy and must do whatever is in his power to save it. Indeed, he spent the whole novel complaining about how Nur, Murad, and others selfishly mistreated and controlled him (or put him in their “custody”). But now, he sees that he was using them for his own selfish purposes, too. Namely, he was using them to advance his own career: he wanted to build a career off rediscovering and analyzing Nur’s work. So, he put Nur “in custody,” too—in other words, he took responsibility for how the world remembers Nur and his work. In this sense, Deven has achieved exactly what he wanted: he is now the person closest to Nur’s poetry—and to Nur’s “soul and spirit.” And he is arguably the new guardian of India’s Urdu poetic tradition.