The next weeks of Deven’s life rush by in a whirlwind. Murad congratulates Deven on finally arranging the interview; they are waiting for Nur at the house that his older wife (Safiya) has rented them. Deven passed her an envelope full of cash through the back door, and she sent him to a pink house on the same street. At the house, Deven worked up the courage to tell a burly bodyguard (Bulu) that he’s the one interviewing Nur, and then its gaudily dressed owner invited him upstairs. Chiku followed with all his recording equipment, gawking at the dimly lit bedrooms they passed on their way upstairs and asking if this house is a hotel. Deven reminded him that they only have three days to get all their material.
The novel returns to its stop-and-go cycle of calm and crisis, stagnation and progress. And Deven returns to a state of wild, unrealistic optimism: he desperately wants to believe that his interview will go smoothly now that he has finally bought the tape recorder and paid Safiya for the room. Remarkably, he thinks that, even after all his starts and stops with Nur, he can finish the whole project in three days. But, as the novel has consistently shown thus far, things are never so simple for him—there is always someone else ready to give him a new challenge or saddle him with unexpected expenses.
But when Murad asks how long Deven needs, Deven says he doesn’t know. Murad complains that he wasn’t expecting to come to this part of the city, and Deven points out that it’s where Nur lives. Murad repeats his question, but Deven refuses to give a timetable because “a poet [can’t] be pinned down by time.” Murad asks if Deven is drunk, but Deven is just thrilled to finally be interviewing Nur.
Murad’s complaints about Nur’s neighborhood suggest that he hasn’t been there before—which, in turn, suggests that he doesn’t care nearly as much about Nur’s work as he claims to. (Indeed, readers might wonder whether he has been pretending to care about Nur all along, just because he knows that Deven idolizes him.) Meanwhile, Deven’s refusal to name a timeline suggests that he has finally learned how to deal with Murad—by turning his own tactics against him and refusing to give him a straight answer. And his claim that “a poet [can’t] be pinned down by time” is an ironic double-entendre: he also appears to be arguing that the beauty of true poetry is timeless—even though he is interviewing Nur precisely because Urdu poetry seems to be a dying art.
When he arrives, Nur immediately starts talking about food and drink. He requests the biryani he always orders from a specific chef in the mosque, and he insists that the only way to have it is with rum. He has brought his followers, who enthusiastically agree on the need for rum and biryani—and that Deven must be the one to pay. Deven calls Murad from a pharmacy to ask for money, but Murad’s only response is a few meaningless grunts. Fortunately, he stops by the next morning with cash—but he promises to cut the same amount from Deven’s pay.
Deven’s high expectations prove unrealistic: Nur is still the same man, more interested in food, drink, and revelry than poetry. And his dreadful followers come, too, despite Deven’s efforts to get rid of them. Indeed, between the tape recorder, the rent payment to Safiya, and the biryani and rum for Nur, this interview process seems to have benefited everyone but Deven. (Murad’s history of nonpayment and threat to dock his fee suggests that he may not even get fair compensation for his work.)
Once he gets his food and drink, Nur finally starts reciting his poetry. But every time Chiku has to fiddle with the microphones and cables to get the recorder working, Nur goes on grumpily about the evils of technology. Often, Chiku completely misses Nur’s poems and only starts recording once Nur is already telling old stories about pigeon racing or the time a neighbor attempted to rob him, but at least he sprinkles in a line of poetry once in awhile. Deven’s other main job is making sure everyone has their drinks. Later, Deven and the crowd argue over whether to give the sleeping Chiku a drink. In fact, the crowd constantly distracts Nur from his poetry and life story, making it all but impossible to record the right moments.
Chiku’s incompetence further complicates the interview and makes Deven start to regret not just choosing the simple route and taking dictation. The recorder also alienates Nur, whose grumpy rant about technology highlights the struggle between tradition and modernity at the heart of the novel. As Nur puts it, traditional methods are tried and true, while modern ones are often more about hype than function. Indeed, Deven’s attempt to use the modern (the recorder) to preserve the traditional (Nur’s poetry and memories) fails spectacularly. Perhaps this is simply a warning against blind faith in technology, or perhaps it means that past traditions (like Urdu poetry) are incompatible with modernity.
Eventually, Deven directly asks Nur to recite poetry. Offended, Nur objects to being “ground between stones, and bled, in order to produce poetry—for you.” But at other times, especially in the morning, Nur freely shares his poetry. He also explains his artistic influences, who (to Deven’s surprise) are mainly the English poets Byron and Shelley. Once, he even recites John Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame” three times in a row. Chiku records all three—but misses Nur’s original poem.
Nur’s offended response to Deven suggests that, even after all the effort Deven has put into interviewing him, he might simply refuse to give Deven any usable material. It’s not clear if he enjoys stringing Deven along, or if he still views Deven as a secretary who works for him, and so is only willing to share his poetry on his terms. Regardless, his complaint is similar to Imtiaz’s claim that scholars only study poets in order to “feed upon [their] carcasses”—or profit from their hard work. In short, Nur and Imtiaz both challenge the notion that interpreting a work of literature is a service to the author and the reading public. Rather, they present it as a selfish way for the critic to use (or even distort) a work for their own ends.
One day, Deven hears women arguing violently below, and then something heavy falling down the stairs. One of Nur’s followers, a cheeky young man with filthy feet, explains that “someone has overstayed.” That night, this man asks Deven if Nur has come to this brothel for the recordings—or to look for another wife. He explains that Nur met Imtiaz here, then he walks away laughing. Deven wants to attack him.
The novel never reveals exactly what is happening downstairs—only that it’s something sinister which Deven doesn’t fully understand. Still, Nur’s follower confirms Deven’s worst suspicions about where they are, the story of Nur and Imtiaz’s marriage, and Nur’s character in general. (While married to Safiya, Nur started spending time at this brothel—where he met Imtiaz, who was a sex worker, and decided to take her as his second wife.)
The brothel opens directly onto the bazaar, so traffic constantly interrupts the recordings. Occasionally, it’s so loud that Nur has to stop talking. Once, a truck driver starts arguing with a crowd on the street. As Deven tries to continue the interview, Nur’s followers run to the balcony and Nur starts ordering kebabs. Deven tells Chiku to stop recording, and as soon as he does, Nur starts reciting one of his famous poems.
The recording session devolves into a carnivalesque farce. As Deven runs into more and more obstacles, his chances of actually recording Nur’s unpublished poetry start to seem slimmer and slimmer. The novel doesn’t just pile on these twists and turns for comic effect—it also does so in order to emphasize Deven’s powerlessness and inability to take charge of his circumstances.
That evening, Chiku declares that he has to quit to go to his sister’s wedding; he demands his pay. Unaware that he was supposed to pay Chiku, Deven says he won’t do it unless Chiku sticks around to finish the recordings. Deven phones Murad, who points out that they have been working for three weeks, when Chiku only promised one. Murad demands that Deven finish the interviews and start writing his article immediately. But Deven thinks Nur is finally digging into the past, and he only needs a week or two more.
Even though Chiku is a terrible, lazy worker, his complaints about his working conditions seem reasonable. But they still create another minor crisis for Deven, whose job is looking more and more like herding cats. After all, he was under the impression that he paid for Chiku’s help when he paid Jain for the recorder. But now, it seems that Jain gave him Chiku in order to squeeze even more money out of him—money that he simply doesn’t have.
Deven buys a notebook so that he can transcribe Nur’s poems normally, and then he goes back to his old school friend Raj’s flat, where he is staying. When he first arrived in Delhi, Deven visited to ask if Raj had returned from Cairo, where he had been teaching. Instead, Raj’s widowed aunt greeted Deven and invited him in for dinner. He ate along with another man, who welcomed Deven to sleep on the veranda. He has been doing that ever since. He has learned that the man is a tailor who works downstairs.
Deven’s stay with Raj’s family offers the reader a brief, peaceful interlude to his frustrations with Nur. Raj’s departure to Cairo echoes Deven’s fantasies of running away from his life and starting over, far away. And Raj’s aunt’s hospitality creates a worrisome parallel between Deven and Nur: just as Nur and his lackeys are using a space that Deven rented, Deven is living rent-free with Raj’s aunt, who is generous out of a pious obligation to the destitute, rather than genuine goodwill. This raises the possibility that Deven may be just as selfish and manipulative as the very people he criticizes—he just doesn’t realize it.
Meanwhile, the pious widow never speaks, but she generously feeds anyone who needs food. She also does several elaborate pujas (prayers) every evening while the tailor sings religious songs for her. At night, the tailor tells Deven boring stories about his clients, like the woman who demanded thirty blouses in less than a week. Deven wonders if he is overstaying his welcome and tries to help the widow with her expenses by buying her a basket of fruit, but she just uses it in prayers and gives it to monks. At night, Deven gazes at a park across the street, where he used to play cricket with Raj when they were children.
Although she only appears in this passage, Raj’s aunt is a symbolically powerful figure in the novel. She is a stand-in for Deven’s mother, who was also widowed after his father’s death. And her purity operates as a kind of moral mirror for Deven, who sees himself as ethically superior to the swindlers and liars who surround him—but often fails to see how he manipulates others, when necessary, too. Her behavior highlights how, throughout this novel (as in Indian society generally), men’s freedom and success depend on women’s sacrifice and generosity. (After all, she is attempting to fulfill the strict religious requirements on Hindu widows, whom society often marginalizes.
Deven brings his notebook when he goes to meet Nur the next day. But Nur complains that he hasn’t slept and doesn’t want to recite poetry. His followers start performing terrible poems, and Chiku asks if he should record them. Then, Nur interrupts to tell Deven that “sifting and selecting from the debris of our lives” is impossible. Suddenly, he starts reading a totally new poem. Deven starts transcribing, but then Nur grabs the book and writes it down himself. But Nur quickly gets tired, gives up, and asks for a drink. Someone calls for “women and dance,” but Nur refuses, saying he’s too old. In fact, he says he’s totally done, and he hobbles out of the room. Deven runs after him, but Nur says the interviews are over and he’s going for some “primordial sleep.”
With one final burst of poetic insight, Nur gives Deven the only valuable material from his whole research process: one unpublished poem. Of course, it’s deeply ironic that, after struggling for weeks with his innovative but useless recorder, he gets this poem on paper, not tape. Indeed, Nur’s quote about “the debris of our lives” is a warning against the whole endeavor of tape recording, and the kind of attitude toward time and history that it represents. Namely, he suggests that trying to accurately record the past or reduce it to a single meaning is a fool’s errand—both impossible and pointless. Instead of trying to recover Nur’s past, perhaps people like Deven should try to apply his wisdom to the future. Lastly, Nur’s call for “primordial sleep” is a reference to death, and it suggests that this is the last time that Deven and the reader will see him.