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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Anita Desai's "In Custody"

I finished three books in the week: old favourite Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America", Anita Desai's "In Custody" and Patricia Highsmith's "Eleven" , a short story collection. More about the other two later, but first, I simply have to write about this luminous work by one of India's finest writers ever.

"In Custody" is about Deven, a lecturer at a Delhi college, whose obviously mediocre and banal existence is changed when he gets an assignment from his friend Murad, who runs an Urdu magazine: To interview Nur, the greatest living Urdu poet, now well past the peak of his powers, living the life of a recluse.

The trials and tribulations which Deven faces while trying to extract something useful from Nur, who is a shadow of the man he used to be; form the crux of the book. But it is really the beautiful exploration of the layers of everyday life that Desai revels in. During the course of this slim novel, there are several passages which make you gasp with recognition, such is the power and accuracy of her vision. Even when dealing with complex and nostalgia-ridden characters like Nur, Desai displays a deftness of touch and a unique, sensitive style which fleshes out the character like few others can do.

The oppression of women and their often "trapped" existence is a peripheral theme in the novel. Whether it is Sarla, Deven's wife or Nur's wives, the female characters in the story act as a sort of a barometer. Sample this simply-told yet devastatingly effective passage

"When he did get home, Sarla was standing in the doorway with her arms and her sari wrapped about her shoulders and her face bent under the thin straggling hair as she talked to a neighbour outside: the picture of an abandoned wife......"

Reading Anita Desai, we are reminded constantly that this could be any of us: the remarkable amount of details she provides; little things really, are sure to provoke a trip down memory lane. Although she has been criticised often on the grounds that plot takes a backseat in most of her books, my view is two-fold:
1) Plot movement is not always manifested in the form of actual, tangible and relevant events. The psychological evolution of a character is equally fascinating, and in the hands of a master(like Desai) perhaps even more so.
2) I couldn't care less either way: If Anita Desai decides to describe her impression of the first fellow she sees on any given day on the street; over the course of a few hundred pages, I would happily devour it.

Perhaps the best way to describe the book is a tragic comedy: seeing the pathetic Deven's futile attempts at relevance, his one shot at glory, one laughs and cries at the same time.My favourite Desai book remains "Baumgartner's Bombay" which is actually not one of her more fancied novels, like "Clear Light Of Day" and "Fasting, Feasting" both of which were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize(like "In Custody"). But after reading this one, I have to place it a very close second. Am now looking to get my hands on the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film "In Custody"..... it starred Shashi Kapoor, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi......more than enough reasons already!

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