Anita Desai’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel is possibly the most frustrating reads I have had the misfortune of encountering in a very long time. To say I disliked it is a complete understatement.
A craven, weak-willed, poorly-paid lecturer of Hindi at a northern Indian city outside of Delhi, Deven is an infuriating metaphor for the downtrodden everyman, constrained by his lowly station and limited opportunities in life.
When Deven is offered the opportunity by a former schoolfriend to interview Nur, the greatest living poet in the Urdu language, he grasps at it, daring to dream of publication and escape from the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of Mirpore. Although a dying language in India since Independence, to Deven it is the lyrical language of poetry and a memory of the literary aspirations of his long-deceased father. But it’s Deven’s timidity and inertia that proves such an undertaking as a disaster.
Populated by a series of unseemly, grasping individuals, In Custody is unpleasant throughout. There is little love in Deven’s marriage to Sarla and everyone encountered takes advantage of him – whether it is the ageing, alcoholic Nur, himself trapped by acolytes and hangers-on, the publishing-school friend, Murad or fellow lecturer Mr Siddiqui.
Bills mount as he tries to follow his dream, but instead of interviews and recitals, demands for rum, biriyani, kebabs, room rental, tape recording purchases arrive. But, ever the eternal victim, at no point do we witness a proactive Deven vaguely attempt to turn things to his advantage (however slight). His obsequiousness towards the hero-worshipped poet over the course of the (thankfully) short novel wears the patience.
There is a great deal of symbolism within Desai’s writing, some of it more obvious than others. The title itself is indicative of the lives of all the characters: each is entrapped, imprisoned, held captive. And, to the initiated, political commentary is likely, touching as it does on linguistic, political and cultural issues. But that does not alter the fact that In Custody is an infuriating and unlikeable read.
Anita Desai was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but lost out to Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac.