As soon as his bus leaves town, Deven feels like he’s suddenly free from “indestructible prison” of life in Mirpore. Ramshackle and always covered in a thick layer of dust, the city is hundreds of years old, but has little to show for it besides the dilapidated 19th-century mosque in the bazaar and the old temples whose history nobody knows. Mirpore has no river, just a filthy reservoir, and it’s divided between the mostly Muslim area near the mosque and the majority-Hindu rest of the city. Sometimes religious tensions flare up, like when Hindu and Muslim festivals fall on the same day, but everyone usually forgets and moves on.
The fictional city of Mirpore, which resembles many ordinary Indian cities in the region around Delhi, serves as a metaphor for Deven’s stagnant, unfulfilling life. In the city, as in Deven’s life, the passage of time brings degradation and disappointment, not positive change or freedom. The past lives on in the city, but people do not bother to make a point of remembering it. Indeed, in describing Mirpore, Desai emphasizes the fraught politics of religion in north India, which has become dominated by its Hindu majority since independence. Mirpore’s crumbling, forgotten mosque represents the way that Islam and the culture surrounding it—including the Urdu language—have lost their glory in north India.
Mirpore’s city center is home to schools (like the one where Deven teaches), government buildings, and the railway and bus stations, which constantly shuttle people through town to Delhi. The city is always bustling, but it has no real industry, and nothing changes there from year to year. This is why Deven has always felt trapped there, and why he feels so relieved when his bus makes its way out of town.
Desai paints Mirpore as bustling yet soulless: like the waves in a stormy sea, it’s constantly moving on the surface, but at a deeper level, it’s actually empty and still. Moreover, while motion might evoke freedom, change, and the future, stillness represents captivity, tradition, and the past. Thus, Desai suggests that the relationship between freedom and captivity—or custody—is not as simple as it may appear.
The bus enters the small stretch of countryside separating Mirpore from Delhi. Scattered with small factories and full of acrid smoke, it feels like the “strip of no-man’s land that lies around a prison.” Deven remembers how insulted he felt when his in-laws bought him the cheap green shirt he’s wearing now. He realizes that he doesn’t feel like he’s about to meet his idol and do something great.
The countryside’s smoky factories represent modernization’s pernicious effects: rather than freeing India from its poverty and misery, modern industry has merely polluted it, destroying formerly pristine countryside. Like Mirpore’s failure to truly change, this is also a metaphor for Deven’s sense that he is a failure.
The passenger next to Deven babbles on about going to Delhi for his nephew’s first birthday. Suddenly, the bus swerves to avoid a dog but hits it anyway, shocking the passengers. Deven once again asks himself how he can reconcile his meager day-to-day life with his great literary aspirations. As he watches crows fly over to feed on the dog’s body, his neighbor starts talking about how the dog is lucky and death is a blessing. Deven suddenly recites some lines from Nur, who compares life to a long funeral procession. His neighbor is impressed and calls him a poet, but Deven dourly replies that he’s just a teacher. The other man starts chatting about rising prices and the harvest with someone else instead.
The other passenger represents the kind of routine, unremarkable life that Deven long dreaded leading—but has ended up with, nonetheless. While meeting Nur may finally enable him to live out his grand literary ambitions, it also reminds him how little he has achieved at present: he is nothing more than an insignificant teacher in an insignificant college in an insignificant city. The dog’s death and the lines from Nur’s poem both strongly suggest that Deven is headed toward his death.
Deven starts to worry that Murad is cheating him and has sent him on a fool’s errand. Upon arriving in Delhi, he lingers in the bus terminal for a long time, anxious about his interview and worried that Nur will see him as a clown. As he smokes a cigarette, a shop owner talks him into buying a glass of chai. When he finishes it, he notices a dead fly at the bottom of the glass. He’s disgusted, but he also can’t help but feel like it and the stray dog are omens for “death itself.”
Deven is overwhelmed with feelings of powerlessness: he senses that he lacks control over his life because he has neither the will nor the resources to assert himself and stand up to people like Murad. Death, this chapter’s dominant motif so far, returns again—now even more explicitly. In addition to foreshadowing Deven’s sense that his past self dies forever when he meets Nur, it also represents Nur himself and the Urdu language, which are fast approaching their deaths.
Deven finds the old, rundown building where Murad works. But before he can go inside, Murad sprints down the stairs, meets him at the entrance, and declares that they have to hurry to lunch and then to their appointment with Nur. Deven explains that he already ate, and Murad silently leads him off into the afternoon crowd instead. He stops at an electrician’s shop, where he argues with the shopkeeper about a botched repair job. When Deven asks about the hurry, Murad says there isn’t one: Nur is an old man with nothing to do. Even after decades of friendship, Deven still finds Murad’s “interior kaleidoscope” of mood swings baffling and infuriating. Murad admits that he doesn’t even know where Nur lives—just that it’s somewhere in Chandni Chowk.
Murad’s dishonest, inconsistent behavior raises serious doubts about his true motives for hiring Deven. At the same time, he doesn’t appear to gain anything from manipulating and lying to Deven—instead, he seems to enjoy doing it for its own sake. When he runs downstairs, this suggests that he doesn’t want Deven to come inside his office—if he really has one at all.
A naked sadhu (holy man) with a python around his neck approaches Deven with a begging bowl. Deven gives the man a coin, dodges the snake, and runs ahead to catch up with Murad, who makes fun of him for being afraid. Murad declares that he’s in a rush: he has to get back to the office, he says, and Deven should stop acting like a baby and go find Nur on his own. Frustrated, Deven reminds Murad that he came to Delhi specifically so that Murad could bring him to Nur’s house. Deven yells that he at least needs Nur’s address, and Murad tells him not to scream like an uncivilized villager. He tells Deven to follow him to his office so that he can write out a letter of invitation, and Deven reluctantly agrees.
Deven’s reaction to the sadhu only underlines how weak-willed he is: even though he barely has any money, he gives some to the sadhu out of fear and a sense of religious obligation. (Readers should remember that Deven is Hindu, while Murad is Muslim.) Above all, Deven appears unsuited to the rough-and-tumble of life in Delhi, which appears to be full of fraudsters like Murad, who are willing to do anything to get ahead. Readers might feel anger or frustration on Deven’s behalf and wonder why he isn’t firmer with Murad. Perhaps he simply knows that Murad will always be more stubborn than he is, or perhaps he cares so much about meeting Nur that he is willing to put up with Murad’s manipulativeness for the time being.
Deven remembers how, when they were kids, Murad would drive him crazy by calling him outside to join a cricket match and then insisting he didn’t want to play. Clearly, he hasn’t changed at all. Deven follows him through the bazaar back to his office, where he and two assistants work in a messy, cramped corner behind a noisy printing press. It’s an unimpressive sight, but Deven is still astonished that it exists at all. Murad introduces him to V.K. Sahay, who owns the printing press, and complains that he doesn’t have enough space. (Sahay explains that he’s busy printing school textbooks.)
Deven’s memories from childhood show that his problem clearly isn’t a failure to recognize Murad’s behavior as coercive, controlling, and opportunistic. Rather, it’s figuring out what to do about this behavior. After all, Deven clearly benefits from his friendship with Murad, who has the money and connections that he lacks. Over the course of the book, readers will notice this pattern repeating itself: Deven laments how others take advantage of him, but he doesn’t realize that he is taking advantage of other people, too. Meanwhile, Murad’s office is clearly underwhelming—which underlines how marginal Urdu literature has become to the Indian public. But it also becomes clear that Murad wasn’t actually trying to hide his office from Deven, which just adds to the sense of confusion that envelops this scene.
Murad stands over his desk and writes out Deven’s introduction letter. But Deven wonders whether Nur will take Murad’s word seriously at all. Murad tells his office boy to guide Deven to Chandni Chowk, then gives Deven the letter with a mysterious wink. Deven leaves the lunch Sarla prepared him at Murad’s office and follows the boy away.
Murad’s behavior is so unpredictable that it’s impossible to know whether his introduction letter means anything at all. As Deven’s sense of frustration and demoralization come to the fore, it’s easy to forget that he has come to Delhi primarily because of his burning desire to meet Nur.