Study Guide of In Custody by Anita Desai


In Custody is a novel written in the year 1984 by a well-known Indian-American author Anita Desai. Anita Desai, a well-known Indian-American author, wrote the novel In Custody in 1984. The novel is about the search for one’s identity and meaning in life. Custody depicts Indian life at close quarters – it embodies the Indian culture. The small town of Mirpore and the big city of Delhi (primarily Old Delhi) – as its context, the novel justly portrays the small town and big city of India in such a realistic manner that when we read the novel, we are transported to those cities and times and experience both the richness and drudgery of these places. Even though the novel deals realistically with Delhi and Mirpore, it has a significant depth in terms of being a remarkable psychological study of characters. In other terms, Anita Desai’s novel, In Custody, can be described as a sociological and psychological study.

Summary of In Custody

Chapter 1

Murad appears at Mirpore, where Deven is a Hindi lecturer at a college, in Anita Desai’s novel In Custody. Murad is the editor of the Urdu magazine Awaaz, and he has approached his buddy Deven to persuade him to do an interview with the famed Urdu poet Nur at his home in Old Delhi. Murad and Deven, two pals, walk out to market for lunch and discuss their respective financial concerns. Deven expresses his dissatisfaction that he is not compensated for his poems and reviews in Murad’s magazine. Murad, on the other hand, reminds him that his magazine company is not a success, but he continues to run it because of the long and distinguished legacy of Urdu poetry. Murad informs Deven that he needs some additional work to finish the Nur feature and asks Deven to go to Delhi and find Nur so that he can interview him in depth for a wonderful Nur piece.

Chapter 2

Deven believes the town of Mirpore to be very dismal and dull, and it is a source of his boredom and separation. So Deven sees his move from Mirpore to Delhi as a reprieve. On his approach to Delhi, he sees a landscape that is, to some part, an extension of Deven’s thoughts. In other words, the desolate and lonely environment he sees appears to be an outpouring of his own thoughts – a wasteland of his own existence.

Deven, on the other hand, arrives in Delhi and meets Murad. He obtains a formal letter of recommendation from Murad in order to meet the great Urdu poet Nur Shahjehanabadi in person. Though he accepts the letter, he wonders if a letter of reference from someone of Murad’s standing will be of any value. Deven mulls over whether or not he should go meet Nur and, in the end, decides hesitantly that he should.

Chapter 3

Deven meets Nur at his apartment in Old Delhi and is astounded to discover the poets surrounded by a gang of louts, whom the poet appears to like. Deven has long admired Nur and admired his literary achievements; nevertheless, when he meets Nur in person, he is absolutely taken aback by the manner Nur conducts himself. Deven discovers that Nur is living with his two wives, and that his second wife, Imtiaz Begum, was previously linked to a brothel. When Deven discovers Nur in this state, he is taken aback by the circumstance. Furthermore, he finds it even more revolting when Nur chastises Deven for bothering him and also for being a Hindi lecturer.

Nur believes that Urdu as a language died in 1947 and that the Urdu language’s spirits still persist. Deven thinks the atmosphere inside Nur’s house to be oppressive, and the inhabitants to be harsh and vulgar. When he sees his beloved poet Nur in the midst of this ugliness and savagery, he is disgusted. Nur’s wife chastises Nur and everyone else in the home for drinking too much and making Nur’s life more difficult. Nur believes that he should no longer visit the poet and should return to his own world in Mirpore rather than wasting time investigating Nur’s universe.

Deven is disappointed with himself when he returns to Mirpore after his first contact with the world of Nur, the famed Urdu poet. While travelling, he appears to be torn between pursuing his aspirations of unravelling the world of Nur and keeping himself busy in his world of college in Mirpore. As he travels by bus to Mirpore, he sees one of his students on the bus stop and is immediately brought back to the world of Nur’s poetry.

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Chapter 4

When he arrives at Mirpore, he is unsure what to do next. Instead of returning home, he goes straight to college since he does not want to confront his wife Sarla’s “stony face.” When he returns home later in the day, he is surprised to see Sarla treating him as if he is a stranger. He looks forward to seeing his young kid Manu, but he is also disappointed. “He moved as if he were walking away from the debris of his Delhi trip, his visit to Nur, the unsuccessful interview – leaving it all behind,” Anita Desai writes.

Later, he receives a letter from Nur in which the poet expresses his willingness to hire Deven as his secretary and expresses Murad’s readiness to publish his work. Deven is taken aback by the poet’s decision because he never expected Nur to consent to it.

Chapter 5

Even though Deven adores and idolises Nur, he believes that he cannot accept the position of Nur’s secretary by quitting his college lectureship in Mirpore. He has a paycheck and other advantages as a college lecturer that he does not want to give up to enter the unknown world of Nur. Furthermore, he does not grasp the purpose of Nur, despite having submitted him a proposition to be his secretary. As Deven considers all of this, Murad tries to sway his decision once more, telling him that he should pursue his ambition and try to interview Nur for the upcoming edition of the magazine Awaaz. Deven agrees to Murad’s requests once more and travels to Delhi to meet Nur, but this time he notices that a party has been planned to commemorate the birthday of Nur’s second wife, Imtiaz Bibi. Imtiaz Bibi continues with his own theatrical third grade poetry in that festivity, while the great poet Nur sits in one corner and goes unnoticed amid the swarm of lumpens.

As the party progresses, Nur and Deven retreat to a room away from the festivities, where Nur informs Deven about how Imtiaz Begum has deceived him out of all his stuff and how he is suffering. Deven listens to all of this, but his true interest is in interviewing Nur. Nur agrees to an interview and even claims he will recite some of his verses, including unpublished verses. As Nur says this, Deven promises to create a memoir or a whole book about Nur Shahjehanabadi’s life and verses if the poet accepts. Nur’s two wives enter at this point, and they create a scene that causes Deven to run.

Murad, on the other hand, decides to devote an entire issue of the journal to the lyrics of Nur Shahjehanabadi. As the date for the release of the next edition of Awaaz approaches, Murad encourages Deven to hurry up with the interview of Nur and even tells him to use a tape recorder to record the interview and Nur’s verses, which he can subsequently work on while at home. Furthermore, Murad entices Deven by informing him that he can publish a book about Nur called “My Days with Nur Shahjehanabadi.”

Chapter 6

Mr. Siddiqui, the chairman of the Department of Urdu at Deven’s institution, arranges for funding for the tape recorder from the college after hearing about Deven’s work with Nur. Murad takes Deven to a tape recorder shop and encourages him to buy a used tape recorder. Murad appears to have a preexisting arrangement with Mr. Jain, the proprietor of the tape recorder shop, which he does not reveal to Deven. Deven, who is inexperienced with technology, believes what Murad tells him. Furthermore, Deven is given a technician named Chiku to aid him in his mission of recording Nur’s interview.

Chapter 7

As soon as the tape recorder arrives, Deven sets up an interview with the poet Nur. When he arrives, he discovers that Nur’s second wife, Imtiaz Begum, has been sick since her birthday, with a high temperature and a loose bowel movement. In that environment, the poet Nur is not in a position to be questioned by Deven. Furthermore, it is said that Nur can no longer read poetry in his own home because it is frowned upon by his second wife. She believes that no one wants to listen to Nur anymore because they are enamoured with Imtiaz Begum’s young voice.

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So, in these circumstances, Deven is devastated that he is unable to interview Nur. When Nur expresses a desire for his second wife to be admitted to a hospital for treatment, Deven is overjoyed because he believes he will be able to interview Nur alone. But when he learns that Nur has already failed in his attempt to admit Imtiaz Begum to the hospital, all of his expectations are dashed.

Deven then informs Nur that, in order to facilitate the interviewing process, he has decided to record the interview, which makes Nur anxious because he believes it is beneath his dignity to have his voice recorded. At this moment, they’ve been informed that Imtiaz Begum has requested them, and Deven is scared of meeting her. Imtiaz Begum rejects the idea of taping the interview right away. At this point, Nur’s first wife, Safia Begum, comes to their aid, telling them that she will assist them in getting Nur to leave the house through the back door to an interview location that she will hire. Deven gladly agrees and assures her that he will notify her about the time and location. Safia Begum then informs Deven that she is demanding payment for the same, which surprises him, and at this point, the demand for extra money leads him to believe that he should abandon the notion of interviewing Nur.

Chapter 8

Deven is shown in a depressed state because his continuous attempts to interview Nur had all failed. Furthermore, he is disgusted when Sarla teases him about travelling to Delhi. At this juncture, he receives another letter from Nur, in which Nur invites him to come and reproduce the poet’s new cycle of thirty-six couplets. He is informed once more that he would not be permitted to question Nur until he receives the money for Safia Begum. Deven is split between his desire to interview Nur and his limited resources.

Deven contacts Abid Siddiqui for financial aid again, and he again recuses himself by utilising his strong relations with the college’s Registrar to release funds for Nur’s interview fees. Deven’s ardour manifests itself once more in his eagerness to travel to Delhi to interview Nur. When Deven contacts the Head of the Department of Hindi, Mr. Trivedi, for a week’s leave, he is severely reprimanded and told to postpone the interview for two months till summer break. Nonetheless, luck smiles on Deven and he is able to depart; however, the next obstacle was Sarla. Deven is also successful in convincing Sarla to visit her parents’ residence. Everything appears to be going smoothly, but Deven has a feeling that something isn’t quite right in his procedure of interrogating Nur.

Chapter 9

Deven travels to Delhi once more with the goal of interviewing Nur. She meets with Safia Begum and gives her the money for the interview before directing him to a location she had already reserved for the appointment. Deven and Chiku, the tape recorder technician, enter the room and wait for Nur. When Nur eventually arrives in the appointed room, Deven is once again upset since Nur has brought his regular visitors with him. Furthermore, instead of discussing his lyrics and life, Nur begins to discuss Birayani and rum. Nur demands that Deven provide for food and drinks for the assembled group, and Deven exits the room to phone Murad for financial assistance. Murad offers to supply food and beverages on the condition that the amount be deducted from Deven’s remuneration for the interview. Nur occasionally erupts into outbursts of poetry after acquiring the food and drinks, but Deven suffers the same problem of Chiku not being professional in capturing what needs to be recorded. Deven’s work is complicated by several factors: I Nur does not consistently speak about his poems and poetry; (ii) Chiku, the technician, is not well-trained enough to know what to record and what not to record; and (iii) the assembled people (the ostensible audience of Nur) create too much commotion to allow for a smooth recording of the interview.

Nonetheless, the interview continues. Nur’s poetry’s occasional powerful emotional outburst causes Deven to lose track of time. This pattern of eating and drinking, punctuated by spurts of poetry, continues for three weeks. Nur erupts into a never-before-heard lyric on the final day of the interview. Deven had begun jotting notes on his copy because the tape recorder had stopped working. Nur takes his copy and begins penning the verses himself. Deven is overwhelmed with a glory that has flooded his heart at this moment. Nur soon understands, however, that his literary days are finished. The lengthy interview session comes to a close with this.

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Chapter 10

Deven now has a new dilemma when he discovers that the recording Chiku made of Nur’s chats and poetry is completely incoherent. It appears that there are also confused conversations, and Deven knows that his endeavour has failed. Murad provides another ray of hope when he instructs Deven to take the tapes to Mirpore and edit them into a coherent interview. Mr. Jain then offers to aid Deven once more by sending another of his nephews, Pintu, to help with the editing of the tapes.

When he arrives in Mirpore, he discovers that the college has been abandoned. This abandoned appearance of the college makes him recognise his responsibilities to the college, which he has not fulfilled. Deven enlists the assistance of one of his students, Dhanu, to edit the tapes. Even after all of the editing, the tapes are not ready to be presented to the college authorities.

So Deven contacts Abid Siddiqui, the head of the Department of Urdu, who has previously warmly assisted him. Deven begs his assistance to avoid the wrath of the College officials, but Siddiqui also criticises him for misusing college funds. Deven is distraught and considers going to work, so he spends virtually the entire night examining student answer scripts.

At this point, another letter from Nur arrives, throwing Deven off balance. The letter is accompanied by a bill for Rs. 500 as room fee for the location where the interview was held. Deven is unhappy with himself and contacts Murad for assistance in paying off the amount. Murad, on the other hand, refuses to offer any more money. As Murad scolds him, Deven knows he has nowhere to go and that he has been thoroughly duped. So, instead of returning to Mirpore, he wanders aimlessly until he reaches a park in Delhi, where, looking at the stately building and the eastern walls of the great Friday mosque, Deven finds an answer to his question about the significance of poetic art in the image of the dome against the background of the sky.

Chapter 11

Deven discovers a sense of life in nature, and when he returns home, instead of being upset and perturbed by Sarla’s (his wife’s) hard and graceless appearance, he feels sympathy for her since he can now relate his own anguish with Sarla’s. Deven is aware that he was sincere in his idea and that he followed it with zeal; yet, he is not to blame Murad, Chiku, Nur, or his wives for the project’s failure; rather, he is to blame for all the wrongs that have happened to him. Deven has spent the night worrying about what proof to present to the college officials. He then goes for a long walk to contemplate what to do with his unhappy and despondent self; he even considers suicide as a possible way out of his distress.

Deven recalls Nur and his poems again at this time – Deven attempts to appraise his genius despite the fact that he is elderly and dishonourable to some extent in his current condition. Despite the fact that Nur has reached this point, he believes that his core relationship with Nur has been useful, and he expresses gratitude. He shares a spiritual connection with the poet. The act of inheriting Nur’s poetry, of becoming a custodian and preserver of Nur’s poetry, fills Deven with existentialist consciousness at the dawn. He resolves to continue fighting for Nur’s true legacy, and as a result acquires the courage to battle his hardships.


You have probably gotten a good idea of how the plot of Anita Desai’s novel In Custody has been built by the author to depict the issues and problems that Deven, the protagonist of the novel, goes through as he tries to interview Nur, the great Urdu poet, for his buddy Murad’s magazine. The novel is a moving depiction of the decadent state of Urdu culture and literature, as well as Deven’s efforts to preserve what is already dying.

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