In Custody


Anita Desai

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Themes and Colors
Memory and the Passage of Time Theme Icon
Ambition and Failure Theme Icon
Family, Gender, and Indian Tradition Theme Icon
Beauty vs. Utility Theme Icon
Indian Identity and Pluralism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in In Custody, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Memory and the Passage of Time

In Anita Desai’s novel In Custody, the small-town Hindi teacher Deven Sharma gets the opportunity to interview his idol, the legendary Urdu poet Nur, for his friend Murad’s literary magazine. Deven expects the elderly Nur to be a gentle, wise, honorable scholar living a quiet, spiritual life surrounded by art. But in reality, Nur is a sickly, gluttonous grouch who lives in a chaotic Old Delhi bazaar. He spends most of his…

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Ambition and Failure

Like many a middle-aged teacher, Deven Sharma once harbored ambitions of literary fame and fortune. He wrote poetry as a young man and dreamed of becoming a major writer, or at least a respected scholar. But by the time the novel takes place, his career has long since stalled. He earns a meager salary teaching Hindi in the small town of Mirpore, nobody will publish his poems or his book on the Urdu poet Nur

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Family, Gender, and Indian Tradition

In Custody’s three central characters are all men—in fact, Desai claims that she originally planned to “write in the male voice and just keep out all female characters.” She eventually changed her mind, but only because she realized that she needed significant female characters in order to make her point: in much of India, men and women live in almost completely separate worlds, to the point that they have trouble communicating across the divide…

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Beauty vs. Utility

The title In Custody comes from the book’s closing passage. The passage begins with Deven overcome with resentment toward his former idol Nur—who has left Deven mired in debt and professionally ruined, with no meaningful work to show for it. But then, Deven realizes that he and Nur have actually made a kind of mutual exchange: he has become the “custodian of Nur’s genius,” while Nur has “place[d] him in custody too” by taking…

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Indian Identity and Pluralism

The longstanding conflict between Hindi and Urdu forms the political backdrop for Anita Desai’s In Custody. In fac, Hindi and Urdu are different dialects of the same language: they have the same basic grammar and pronunciation, but different writing systems and specialized vocabulary. They have diverged because of history: from the 1200s to the 1800s, India was ruled primarily by Persian-speaking Muslim empires, and Urdu—a mixture of Persian and local dialects—became the main…

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