Language and Postcolonialism: Anita Desai’s ‘In Custody’ – Dr Rita Garg


Since the beginning of her career as a novelist, Anita Desai has carved a niche for her works. She is known for the exposure of realities by exploring the psyche of the character, enrichment of the locales with natural beauty as well as the human destruction of that and the depiction of social, political, religious or economic dilemma or diversity in contemporaneity. Broadly speaking, the novels of Anita Desai carry all the boldness of a scholar. To be precise, her works are away from classical or romantic galore but definitely maintain Victorian values bordering along modernism because the novelist’s sensibility has the ideal blend of Indian and Western sensibility.

Referring to the question of sensibility at large D.K. Pabby says: “The new literatures in English, namely, Canadian, Australian, African, Caribbean and Indian have amalgamated and are now called Commonwealth Literature because all these literatures have grown out of one common sensibility, i. e.,colonial experience” (32) Of these literatures, one of the most argued is the discourse on Postcolonialism. In Custody, elaborates a generalized language based diatribe where the novelist draws the attention of readers to the past glory of India before the subjugation by the British as then Urdu was “the language of the court in the days of royalty – now languishes in the back lanes and gutters of the city. No place for it to live in the style to which it is accustomed, no emperors and nawabs to act as its patrons”(15). The revelation of postcolonialism and imperialism tracks a criss-cross of cultures, traditions, displacement, diaspora, alienations and consequential chain of illusions and disillusions. In this resonant and realistic novel, her endeavour is to link the readers’ line of thought to the bilingual scene of Hindi versus Urdu. This novel has a parallel drawn between fiction and history in relation to the languages.

Inherent ethnocentric degeneration demystifies the curbing of the evolution of one’s desired communiqué and language. Therefore, the concerning masses ought to be as instrumental in the growth of the language as officialdom. The unequivocal fact remains that from thorp dwellers to urban inhabitants, no differentiation is in sight regarding the superficial efforts made in favour of the language upliftment – Hindi or Urdu.

Undermining the fervor of religiosity of amalgamation of the two societies—pro Hindi and pro Urdu— with cultural voracity commences the novel, In Custody. An inborn chagrin over shadows the dismal scene of language promotion by the pretentious promoters.

The magnificence of the novel lies in the truth that over the plain platform, a dismal strife runs hither and thither conquering with momentary predilection the defeated causes of Urdu language and literature promotion. The complexities to undermine the language struggle are political, economic and social. To highlight the desolate morose of the effort, made by the only devoted person, Deven, Anita Desai describes the disturbed family scene in a chain nearing a break between the spouses-Deven and his wife, Sarla.

Here is the occurrence of the failure of tradition and modernity going hand in hand. Urdu poetry is, like any other poetry – divine – based on love but after Indian freedom the practical situation does not help it. The number of readers is on the decline. Postcolonial times are of IMF and World Bank. This is presented with the delineation of Murad, Nur, the wives of Nur and the Urdu Lecturer in the college where Deven also serves. The realization is that Caliban must speak Prospero’s language – Urdu was popular with the Mughals and now Hindi is popular. No sooner does Deven reach Nur’s house, the politics of languages is discussed at large between the two. The latter finds himself frightened but Nur must say whatever comes to his mind. The discussion switches over to the literary awards with such remarks as the general idea in the bazaar is that “Gobind’s latest poem cycle will win the Sahitya Akademi Award for Hindi this year”. (In Custody, 55) For Urdu the remark shall be: “No book was judged worthy of the award this year” (In Custody, 55) .

To show the reciprocation of multi-culturism to post-independence literature, Anita Desai describes the meetings in the house of Nur in the evenings. Nur’s house is supposed to have some gathering where the visitors are divided into camps like “Persian Camp, Hindustani Camp, Pakistan Camp” (In Custody, 54).They are discussing things over drinks and biryani. This symbolizes their lack of serious effort because after drinking too much, they go to sleep rather than work practically. The wrath of the writer is evident. A visitor to Nur’s house comments adversely on Nur. He does not reply. When Deven sees this type of the group of poetry appreciating people, he develops a dislike for them because they appear as ‘shopkeepers, clerks, bookies and unemployed parasites’ (In Custody, 50) .

Deven is a sufferer all through. He is a temporary Lecturer in Lala Ram Lal College at Mirpore. That is his source of income. Otherwise he has passion for Urdu. His adventure with Nur and Murad is to prove that. Also that he wants to impregnate the literary circle with his presence.

During the very first meeting between Nur and Deven, the former teases the latter about the purpose of visit also: “It seems you have been sent here to torment me” (In Custody, 43) . Nur is much frustrated and he cannot even think of as a logical being. He tells Deven: “I tell you? Those Congress-wallahs have set up Hindi on top as our ruler. You are its slave. Perhaps a spy even if you don’t know it, sent to the universities to destroy whatever remains of Urdu, hunt it out and kill it” (In Custody, 42-43) . Gradually Deven comes to know of this man as a much debilitated being who is fond of drinks. After drinks he vomits in the house and his second wife humiliates him for that.

His second wife was a dancing girl. She married Nur to earn against the name of his as a poet. Now people visit her rather than Nur. She is an economically, independent character and dominates over others. After Nur’s death, she sends Nur’s bills and poems to Deven: “He had accepted the gift of Nur’s poetry and that meant he was custodian of Nur’s very soul and spirit” (In Custody, 204) .

Deven’s meetings with Murad always suggested him of the latter’s desire to earn money and be a superior person. Although the fact is that Murad expresses his superficial passion for Nur’s poetry. Deven looks at him as a ‘chameleon’ (In Custody, 34) . Nur calls Murad a joker. But Deven works for Murad’s magazine Awaaz to let himself be a fool “in the presence of no other than the greatest living poet of Delhi, his hero since childhood” (In Custody, 34) . This mannerism of Deven is typical to Anita Desai’s portrayal through which complex issues are presented in a realistic style. “Anita Desai…distinguishes herself from the other writers with her emphasis on the individual in his inner world of sensibility and his urges and conflicts”(Indira, 47).Deven’s characterization has the typicality of Anita Desai’s implicit manoeuver as usual.

The lost Deven, circulating his misery-incarnated being in search of Urdu language and literature promotion with the project of Murad to raise Nur’s poetry, is juxtaposed to a criss-cross of cultural gap. This runs as a parallel to his failure as an Urdu promoter – detached from any joy what-so-ever–family, job and even his limited number of acquaintances. His battle is with the ones who are unofficially with no culture other than the philosophy of leading a self-centered life: “The encounter with another culture which has developed its in-built structures brings the process of individual enhancement to a standstill” (Wandrekar, 147) .

Besides the cultural gap, Deven is entrapped by Murad, Nur’s wives and college authorities for his being all by himself since the days of childhood. His father died early and widow mother leaves an illegible mark on him. In fact, the indelible inscriptions on his Urdu appreciation are the consequences of deceased father who himself was a person of similar taste. No doubt, “Anita Desai creates characters who feel a terrible isolation in the suffocating darkness of their life in which no deep communication is possible” (Bhatt, 141). Whatever struggle formation stands with Deven, that relates to his attitude – created by self – regarding the diversion of duties at home or in society: “The novels of Anita Desai present characters undergoing an inner psychological turbulence arising out of a conflict between reality and the illusions that characters build up for themselves” (Panigarhi & Kirpal,70).

This view about the protagonists of Anita Desai – hereby applicable to Deven as well, is supported by another critic, Gajendra Kumar: ‘Nevertheless, her elementary concern is to explore and to expound human psyche and self’ (68) .

There must be the poor for the rich to get richer. Here is Murad trying to earn more but never paying Deven for his contributions. For the fear of exclusion, subjection and dispossession, Deven comes under the disinterested procedure of Murad’s literary judgment. Murad and Deven always had this relationship as Murad was the son of a rich businessman and Deven was the son of a poor widow. All the above ultimately happens to Deven at the hands of Murad who represents the Mughal superiority over the Hindu subjects.

Wishing keenly, but helpless Deven remains unable to shrug off the dominance of a rich publisher making him dance. Deven and Murad are not satisfied with the attitude of each other but for the factor of having been together since the times of childhood, Deven still as a lecturer finds it difficult to come out of the vicious circle of Murad. Incidentally, Deven is not the only character to face the impact of time. Rather this applies to Anita Desai’s presentation: “Time has a powerful bearing on man’s life, emotions, thoughts, and experiences. It makes its presence felt on both the physical and psychic planes of human experience” (Kanwar, 7) . The factor of time is rearticulated by Murad ashe uses deplorable expressions for Deven: “You village pumpkin…” and ‘…haven’t you seen or heard, you donkey…’91 or ‘…still a two-cigarette man… ’.10 Deven reiterates: ‘Look, don’t use all those animal names…’91.

Nevertheless such abusive expressions add to the befooling of Deven who was much influenced by his rich friend, Murad. While working on the project of Murad, Deven has disillusionment about the domestic scene of Nur. After being a witness to a tom-foolery in the house of Nur, Deven had made up his mind to relinquish the project of an interview with Nur to be published in Murad’s magazine, Awaaz. What Deven watches is that the two wives of Nur were hell bent upon to prove their supremacy:

“Deven looked to see if rescue was at hand, and saw an old creature wrapped in a brown cloak, her white hair combed about the sides of her face. The face was commanding, so straight in its lines, so military in its firmness. ‘Run away from here, bitch,’ she said in a level voice, and in a corner – Ali was heard to snigger- ‘and leave the old man alone. What more do you want from him? You have taken his name and his reputation and today even his admirers. …go dance before the public since that is your manner of earning a living—“The younger woman who had appeared stricken by apoplexy, leapt at her with a screech. Nur’s bed lay between the two … ” (In Custody, 89-90) .

Sympathetic Deven could not withstand but business minded Murad was all laughter to know this. With this shampeful attitude, a natural question hovers around the dismal scene—how the poet, Nur, can achieve inspiration to compose who is a member of this uncouth, uncultured, and money-minded family. The behaviour of these two rival women projects the art of portrayal by the novelist, which hammers the hurdles on the path of Deven. S. B. Bhambar says: “… Anita Desai is especially noted for her sensitive portrayal of the inner life of her female characters” (125) .

To purchase a tape recorder and record Nur’s interview, Deven had borrowed money from his college. His sincere most efforts did not bear any fruit. Rather, Urdu Lecturer, Mr. Siddiqi is busy developing a plot for construction and is paid for that by a Delhi businessman. He is not interested in Urdu promotion. Even then, the position of this non-literary Lecturer is sound in college. To get some more Delhi boarding bills paid and get the previous loans allowed, he approaches Siddiqi Sahib only. To his various questions Deven answers: “…I was fooled and cheated by everyone – the man who sold me the second hand equipments, the technicians who said he could do the recording but was completely inexperienced, by Murad who said he would pay and did not, by Nur who had never told me he wanted to be paid, and by his wife, wives, all of them…” (In Custody, 199) .

The mischief is by Murad, the editor of Awaaz, an Urdu magazine published from the point of view of making money; Nur the Urdu poet; his wives; and Siddiqi, the Urdu Lecturer in a college at Mirpore where Deven, a temporary Hindi Lecturer also works. It is his love for Nur and Urdu poetry that he falls into complexities and calamities. With the writers of the Third World Countries remains the economic constraint as well. They write about the natives but the financial help does not come from respective governments and they keep an eye on foreign reader’s interests of the developed countries. Besides, not raising the problem of English language, Anita Desai shows the Christians looking satisfactorily at the situation of communal riots between the Muslims and the Hindus: “The Hindu slaughtered pigs in their own quarters, the Muslims took to slaughtering buffaloes in place of cows … . The few Christians of the town ate the meat of both and attended the one small whitewashed brick Church set in a cemetery… ”(In Custody, 22) .

Against the non-beneficiary economic postulate of Deven, stands the social aspect as well. Again, Deven is the ultimate sufferer. He himself is an extremely idealistic and virtuous literature-loving character that too with a cross-ethical approach, his wife is poles apart from spouse’s literary activities. Gaping wide, she grows a communication gap. To bridge the same comes – their son – Manu as a mediator. The nonchalant derivation among others because of his absence rocks the family drama with all sorts of societal forebodings.

Sarla, as a semi-educated being is crushed and humiliated – where her man goes. Such ideas are enough for argumentation in the pool of ignorance invigorating the dark scene of life which is non-existing. Michael Henchard feels that his early age marriage is an obstruction in career graph and consequentially, he befools himself and the spouse to the cornering of self. Deven in his pursuit of career indulges where his captivity awaits and the binaries at home are shattered. In the novel, a group of widows passes over to temple in the morning with a song sung which reflects upon the demerit of Deven:

“O Will you come along with us

Or stay back in the pa-ast?” (In Custody, 132)

Deven’s inability to stay away from his appreciation and the idea of growth to Nur’s poetry does not abandon him. Although even the student of his college would threaten him: “Meet us behind the college and see what we do to you” (In Custody, 200) . Unable to answer, the destitute he swerves.

Economic consequence, ironically enough, is the concluding part of the novel. Unlike Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan, Anita Desai follows Mulk Raj Anand on the path of projecting frustration. However, disillusionment is visible in Anita Desai’s literary rebukes on the intellectuals as well. Here the historical and cultural diversity plays its role; all the complications are inherent because India has a multifarious scene which is old and wounded. This is demystification of an intellectual struggle during the postcolonial phase of India.

Jarring is the depiction when Nur during one of his meetings with Deven, reads out in a sing-song voice the background for the writing of a verse or points out the similarity of ideas and images to those of the poets he chiefly admired. To Deven’s astonishment, these turned out to be Byron and Shelley. Also Nur enjoyed reciting those poet’s works frequently and fulsomely.

The consequential role is of need-based life style. That’s why the role of economy is the utmost lust of all – an educated being, a literary being, a magazine publisher, the two housewives—but a devotee of Urdu poetry fights against the ideas related to gains. Finally, as a cheated person and in risk of his job along with family life he continues to be in custody of Nur’s poetry. Although, it is not only Deven who is in custody of Nur’s poetry but others too are: Murad is the editor of an Urdu magazine; Mr. Siddiqi is an Urdu lecturer; and Nur’s wives are substantially surviving on the monetary gains made out of Nur’s poetry, but with an unanswering conscience they forget their association with Urdu poetry and crave but for money


Bhambar, S. B. “Anita Desai’s Journey to Ithaca: A Spiritual ODYSSEY” , The Champions of Indian Fiction in English, ed. Dr. Amar Nath Prasad and Dr. Jaya Srivastava, Jaipur, Sunrise Publishers & Distributors, 2009.

Bhatt, Indira. “Voice In The City: A Study of Monisha’s Plight”, Indian Women Novelists Set I. Vol. III, ed. R.K.Dhawan, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991

Desai, Anita. In Custody, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1984. (Hereafter, all the subsequent references to this novel shall be made from this edition only).

Indira, S. “The Nowhere Men: A Comparative Study of Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay and Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Men”, Indian Women Novelists, Set II. Vol. I, ed. by R.K.Dhawan, New Delhi: Prestige Book, 1993.

Kumar, Gajendra. “Voice in The City: A Tour De Horizon of Existentialist Philosophy”, Indian English Literature: A New Perspective, New Delhi: Sarup and sons, 2000.

Kanwar, Asha “Anita Desai and Virginia Woolf: A Comparative Study” Indian Women Novelist Set I. Vol. III, ed. by R. K. Dhawan New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991

Pabby, D.K. “Women And Society: Element of Dispossession in Margaret Lawrence’s The Diviners and Anita Desai’s Where Shall We Go This Summer”, Indian Women Novelists, Set II. Vol. I, ed. by R.K. Dhawan, New Delhi: Prestige Book, 1993.

Panigrahi, Bipin B. and Kirpal, Vinay “The Individual and The Search for Self-Identity in Cry, The Peacock”, Indian Women Novelists Set I. Vol. III, ed. by R.K.Dhawan, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991.

Wandrekar, Kalpana. S. “The Ailing Aliens: Bye Bye Blackbird; A Symptomatic Study in Schizophrenia”, Indian Women Novelists Set I, Vol. III ed. by R.K.Dhawan, New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1991


  1. this paper is original as generally critical material on anita desai consist of her characters or their pschy. The discussion over language in the novel and the economic ethos has been discussed,to me, first time.This paper exposes fully well its idea. I congratulate the paper writer.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here