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 time drinking rum, scarfing down kebabs, and complaining about various ailments, and bantering mindlessly with a crowd of second-rate amateur poets, who blindly worship him so they can eat his food and drink his rum. Nur hasn’t written new poetry in years, and Deven’s attempts to interview him end in disaster. At most, Nur occasionally recites old work and lectures his followers about the slow death of Urdu, which was India’s main literary and political language until the early 20th century. In fact, Nur’s declining health, both physical and mental, is an extended metaphor for the death of Urdu—and northern India’s Islamic history more generally—since the Partition made India a Hindu-majority nation in 1947. And these declines find many other parallels throughout the novel. For instance, Deven agrees to tape record his interviews with Nur because everyone tells him that technology will make print irrelevant, his colleague Jayadev laments how the humanities are losing their relevance, and Old Delhi itself seems to be dying, with its buildings crumbling, its traditions fading, and its sky thick with dust that blots out the sun.
Thus, when Deven tries to make a final record of the dying Nur’s poetic genius, he is really trying to capture India’s past before it disappears forever. As Nur himself puts it: “before Time crushes us into dust we must record our struggle against it.” The question at the heart of this novel is: how can we celebrate the past while also embracing the future that destroys it? While Deven spends much of the novel sulking about Nur’s decline, lamenting change, and wishing he could turn back the clock, he changes his mind in the novel’s final passage. Nur might soon die, and Urdu poetry along with it, but its legacy can still inspire future writers and teach Indians to value their country’s layered, multicultural history. In short, Deven realizes that his duty is not just to capture what is timeless in Nur’s life and work, but also to use Nur’s legacy to help create a new, brighter future for India. Desai ends her novel with this epiphany in order to suggest that people who study and remember the past should not drown in nostalgia or fight against change, which is inevitable. Instead, people should determine how their special understanding of the past can contribute to positive change in the future.
Memory and the Passage of Time ThemeTracker
Memory and the Passage of Time Quotes in In Custody
Why should a visit from Murad upset him so much? There was no obvious reason of course—they had known each other since they were at school together: Murad had been the spoilt rich boy with money in his pocket for cinema shows and cigarettes and Deven the poor widow’s son who could be bribed and bought to do anything for him, and although this had been the basis of their friendship, it had grown and altered and stood the test of time. But Deven did not like him appearing without warning during college hours and disturbing him just when he needed to concentrate; it was very upsetting.
The desperation of his circumstances made him say something he never would have otherwise. All through his childhood and youth he had known only one way to deal with life and that was to lie low and remain invisible. Now he leaned forward on his elbows and said emotionally, “If only we got payment for the articles and reviews that we write for magazines and journals, that would be of some help.”
“Now I am planning a special issue on Urdu poetry. Someone has to keep alive the glorious tradition of Urdu literature. If we do not do it, at whatever cost, how will it survive in this era of—that vegetarian monster, Hindi?” He pronounced the last word with such disgust that it made Deven shrink back and shrivel in his chair, for Hindi was what he taught at the college and for which he was therefore responsible to some degree. “That language of peasants,” Murad sneered, picking his teeth with a matchstick. “The language that is raised on radishes and potatoes,” he laughed rudely, pushing aside the empty plates on the table. “Yet, like these vegetables, it flourishes, while Urdu—language of the court in days of royalty—now languishes in the back lanes and gutters of the city.”
The bus soon left Mirpore behind. It came as a slight shock to Deven that one could so easily and quickly free oneself from what had come to seem to him not only the entire world since he had no existence outside it, but often a cruel trap, or prison, as well, an indestructible prison from which there was no escape.
Life is no more than a funeral procession winding towards the grave,
Its small joys the flowers of funeral wreaths …
If it had not been for the colour and the noise, Chandni Chowk might have been a bazaar encountered in a nightmare; it was so like a maze from which he could find no exit, in which he wandered between the peeling, stained walls of office buildings, the overflowing counters of shops and stalls, wondering if the urchin sent to lead him through it was not actually a malevolent imp leading him to his irrevocable disappearance in the reeking heart of the bazaar. The heat and the crowds pressed down from above and all sides, solid and suffocating as sleep.
In the midst of all the shadows, the poet’s figure was in startling contrast, being entirely dressed in white. His white beard was splayed across his chest and his long white fingers clasped across it. He did not move and appeared to be a marble form. His body had the density, the compactness of stone. It was large and heavy not on account of obesity or weight, but on account of age and experience. The emptying out and wasting of age had not yet begun its process. He was still at a moment of completion, quite whole.
“Urdu poetry?” he finally sighed, turning a little to one side, towards Deven although not actually addressing himself to a person, merely to a direction, it seemed. “How can there be Urdu poetry where there is no Urdu language left? It is dead, finished. The defeat of the Moghuls by the British threw a noose over its head, and the defeat of the British by the Hindiwallahs tightened it. So now you see its corpse lying here, waiting to be buried.” He tapped his chest with one finger.
“It is not a matter of Pakistan and Hindustan, of Hindi and Urdu. It is not even a matter of history. It is time you should be speaking of but cannot—the concept of time is too vast for you, I can see that, and yet it is all we really know about in our hearts.”
That, [Deven] saw, was the glory of poets—that they could distance events and emotions, place them where perspective made it possible to view things clearly and calmly. He realized that he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable. That was what Nur’s verse did—placed frightening and inexplicable experiences like time and death at a point where they could be seen and studied, in safety.
Deven never quite believed what happened next. He was so confused and shattered by it that he did not know what it was that shattered him, just as the victim of an accident sees and hears the pane of glass smash or sheet of metal buckle but cannot tell what did it—rock, bullet or vehicle. The truth was that he did not really want ever to think back to that scene. If his mind wandered inadvertently towards it, it immediately sensed disaster and veered away into safer regions.
“He was a poet, a scholar—but is he now? Look at him!” She pointed dramatically at Nur who was huddled, whimpering, on the mattress, holding his knees to his chest and rocking from side to side in agony. “Do you call that a poet, or even a man? All of you—you followers of his—you have reduced him to that, making him eat and drink like some animal, like a pig, laughing at your jokes, singing your crude songs, when he should be at work, or resting to prepare himself for work—”
She was the daughter of a friend of [Deven’s] aunt’s, she lived on the same street as that family, they had observed her for years and found her suitable in every way: plain, penny-pinching and congenitally pessimistic. What they had not suspected was that Sarla, as a girl and as a new bride, had aspirations, too; they had not understood because within the grim boundaries of their own penurious lives they had never entertained anything so abstract. […] She dreamt the magazine dream of marriage: herself, stepping out of a car with a plastic shopping bag full of groceries and filling them into the gleaming refrigerator, then rushing to the telephone placed on a lace doily upon a three-legged table and excitedly ringing up her friends to invite them to see a picture show with her and her husband who was beaming at her from behind a flowered curtain.
The flock of parrots wheeled around, perhaps on finding the fields bare of grain, and returned to the tree above their heads, screaming and quarrelling as they settled amongst the thorns. One brilliant feather of spring green fluttered down through the air and fell at their feet in the grey clay. Deven bent to pick it up and presented it to his son who stuck it behind his ear in imitation of his schoolteacher with the pencil. “Look, now I’m masterji,” he screamed excitedly.
Yes, that was the climax of that brief halcyon passage. It was as if the evening star shone through at that moment, casting a small pale illumination upon Deven’s flattened grey world.
Fatefully, it was the head of the Urdu department, Abid Siddiqui who, in keeping with the size and stature of that department, was a small man, whose youthful face was prematurely topped with a plume of white hair as if to signify the doomed nature of his discipline. It was perhaps unusual to find a private college as small as Lala Ram Lal’s offering a language such as Urdu that was nearly extinct, but it happened that Lala Ram Lal’s descendants […] had to accept a very large donation from the descendants of the very nawab who had fled Delhi in the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny and built the mosque. […] It was promised a department in which its language would be kept alive in place of the family name.
Seeing that line waver and break up and come together again upon the sheet of blue paper, Deven felt as if he were seeing all the straight lines and cramped alphabet of his small, tight life wavering and dissolving and making way for a wave of freshness, motion, even kinesis. In openness lay possibilities, the top of the wave of experience surging forward from a very great distance, but lifting and closing in and sounding loudly in his ear. What had happened to the hitherto entirely static and stagnant backwaters of his existence? It was not the small scrawled note, not Siddiqui or Rai or anyone to do with the college who had caused this stir; it was Nur, Nur’s poetry and Nur’s person.
“Before Time crushes us into dust we must record our struggle against it. We must engrave our name in the sand before the wave comes to sweep it away and make it a part of the ocean.”
“You do not deceive me even if you have thrown dust in his poor weak eyes. I have made my inquiries—I have found out about you, I know your kind—jackals from the so-called universities that are really asylums for failures, trained to feed upon our carcasses. Now you have grown impatient, you can’t even wait till we die—you come to tear at our living flesh—”
O will you come along with us
Or stay back in the pa-ast?
O will you come along …
Later Deven could not understand how it all come about—how he, the central character in the whole affair, the protagonist of it (if Murad were to be disregarded), the one on whom depended the entire matter of the interview, the recording and the memoirs, to which Siddiqui was no more than an accessory, having arrived on the scene accidentally and at a later stage, and in which he played a minor role—how he, in the course of that evening, had relinquished his own authority and surrendered it to Siddiqui who now emerged the stronger while he, Deven, had been brought to his knees, abject and babbling in his helplessness. How?
Frantic to make [Nur] resume his monologue now that the tape was expensively whirling, Deven once forgot himself so far as to lean forward and murmur with the earnestness of an interviewer, “And, sir, were you writing any poetry at the time? Do you have any verse belonging to that period?”
The effect was disastrous. Nur, in the act of reaching out for a drink, froze. “Poetry?” he shot at Deven, harshly. “Poetry of the period? Do you think a poet can be ground between stones, and bled, in order to produce poetry—for you?”
[Nur] broke into a verse that Deven had never heard before, that no one in the room had heard before, that entered into their midst like some visitor from another element, silencing them all with wonder. […] Seizing the book from [Deven], [Nur] wrote in it himself, holding it on his knee, stopping to lick the pencil now and then, peering at the letters with his cataract-filled eyes, while around him the babble broke out again as his audience excitedly discussed this new verse of his. […] This was the audience Nur had always had to try his verses on, Deven saw, revolted by their flattery, and he knelt behind Nur in reverential silence, watching him write, keeping himself apart from the others, the one true disciple in whose safe custody Nur could place his work.
Deven put up both his hands and pushed him back as far as he could on the small landing, till his back was against the wall. “I can’t do that,” he hissed, “it is the property of the college.”
Deven went down the wooden staircase as steadily as he could although his knees shook weakly. Murad’s perfidy filled him with the iron of resistance and he felt steady, straight. As he reached the foot of the stairs, he heard Murad call over the banisters, “One last time I am offering to help—one last time. Sole rights! Only sole rights!”
Deven went towards the exit without looking back.
Deven recalled, incongruously enough, the conversation in the canteen with Jayadev, how they had envied their scientist colleagues who had at their command the discipline of mathematics, of geometry, in which every question had its answer and every problem its solution. If art, if poetry, could be made to submit their answers, not merely to contain them within perfect, unblemished shapes but to release them and make them available, then—he thought, then—
But then the bubble would be breached and burst, and it would no longer be perfect. And if it were not perfect, and constant, then it would all have been for nothing, it would be nothing.
He tried to return to his old idolatry of the poet, his awe of him, his devotion when it had still been pure, and his gratitude for his poetry and friendship, that strange, unexpected, unimaginable friendship that had brought him so much pain.
That friendship still existed, even if there had been a muddle, a misunderstanding. He had imagined he was taking Nur’s poetry into safe custody, and not realized that if he was to be custodian of Nur’s genius, then Nur would become his custodian and place him in custody too. This alliance could be considered an unendurable burden—or else a shining honour. Both demanded an equal strength.
He had accepted the gift of Nur’s poetry and that meant he was custodian of Nur’s very soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure.
He turned back. He walked up the path. Soon the sun would be up and blazing. The day would begin, with its calamities. They would flash out of the sky and cut him down like swords. He would run to meet them. He ran, stopping only to pull a branch of thorns from under his foot.