Sep 21, 2009

In Custody by Anita Desai

I have been extremely lucky to be reading books by two wonderful Indian authoresses one after the other. One was Shashi Deshpande and the other is Anita Desai. I remember coming across Anita Desai’s name a couple of time but had been unable to read any of her books till date. Thankfully the opportunity came my way and the fact that the story had been made into an award winning film piqued my curiosity even further. Of course the mere acting cast of Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor would entice me to watch the movie even if it had not won any award.

I had been musing about the title of the book since I picked it up for reading. Somehow the name had set me thinking though I had to read the entire story to realize its significance.
“In Custody” is primarily the story of Deven, a Hindi professor and his inspiration, the erstwhile famous Urdu poet Nur. Despite his first love for Urdu, Deven had to resort to teaching Hindi in the college. One day his old friend Murad comes and manages to wheedle a confirmation to interview Nur for Murad’s magazine. Murad wants Deven to get a full interview and some of Nur’s best poems from the ever reclusive poet. Deven, who has encountered plenty of uncomfortable situations with the irresponsible Murad, agrees to take on this difficult project only because of his love and devotion to the poet and his works.

The next part of the story and almost all the book is about accomplishing this daunting task. Meeting Nur seems only the start as Deven cannot even imagine the present dilapidated state in which Nur is living. If Deven manages to get rid of the crowding sycophants, he still gets interrupted by Nur’s dramatic and second wife. Else he manages to plonk himself unwittingly into the domestic wars of Nur’s harem.

It is quite easy to identify with Deven’s frustration rising from the current situation and his inability to deal with the different characters who are almost thrust upon him. However at times, the entire situation appears outright comical. Personally I have no idea about the original emotions that were present in Desai’s mind when she described the different scenes of encounter between Nur and Deven. In reality, the rare spouts of poetry and knowledge drowned by the never-ending sessions of food and drink, as well as Deven’s utter dismay at the poet’s state of life and affairs, incorporated more laughter than sympathy, within myself.

Somehow this story and the protagonist’s fate reminds me of “The Rainmaker” by John Grisham. Of course Deven’s character is a far cry from the newbie lawyer, Rudy Baylor. The lazy tone of the book almost mirrors the life at Nur’s abode but every moment one tends to tire of the pace, the interest again arises as Deven comes across some new but fallible method of achieving success. This book takes you back to the ancient life of peace and calm in northern India which also helps us in slow realization of  the dilemma of the custodian. A good book but not for the impatient ones.

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