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The Significance of Deven's Journeys
Anita Desai’s In Custody (published 1984) gives a dull, dead, and unimaginable description of Mirpore. The anti-hero protagonist of the text, Deven, views the fictional town as a “cruel trap…an indestructible prison” with “no escape”. Even water, an elemental indication of life, was blocked off by filth and stagnation. Mirpore gave an impression of “total aridity” with its “ubiquitous” dust. Likewise, in history, it was an “obscure and thankfully forgotten town”. It had nothing worth admiring, “others merely passed through” it.
Mirpore, his domestic situation, and professional frustrations give an impression of Deven being struck and imprisoned in that claustrophobic, lifeless place. His desire to escape the dreariness of Mirpore is what intensifies and attaches importance to these constant back-and-forth journeys from Mirpore to Delhi. These are not just physical journeys, but metaphorical. Through Nur and Urdu poetry, Deven is seeking liberation from his suffocating life. The probable reason why he loves poetry so dearly; it provides him with escape. His dreams and aspirations of gaining fame through poetry, or become a reputed scholar, propel him to take these journeys. These journeys also take place in part because of Murad’s manipulation.
An Unpleasant and Displeasing First Journey
The first journey that Deven undertakes is filled with the most enthusiasm. A great sense of excitement is built up in him as he travels “on his way to the greatest poet of Delhi, his hero”. He is convinced that this is going to be the moment of his life: “Nothing in his life had prepared him for an occasion of this scale”. However, expectations do not pan out and soon things seem on the brink of despair. The “leafless thorn trees”, “broken fences”, and “scattered carcasses of cattle” portend a very bleak situation ahead.
The confidence and excitement with which he had set out vanishes by the time he reaches Delhi, only to realize that this was just the onset of a lengthy list of nightmares. Foremost in Delhi, he has tea “to see him through the most ‘momentous’ day of his life”. Upon finishing it, he sees a dead fly hovering in its dregs, as a symbol of “death itself, nothing less”. These grim and gruesome images of the “struck dog” and “dead fly” make his expectations minimal, but we still see some hope in him.
Upon reaching Delhi, Deven finds an extension of what he has left behind. The only dissimilarity from Mirpore was Delhi's scale: “this was certainly larger, noisier, more crowded and chaotic”. Deven is convinced that his idol’s residence could not be in the bazaars of Chandni Chowk, in midst of those “shady-looking shops”, “shimmering prostitutes”, and “pullulating honeycomb of commerce”. He feels “small and weak”.
When Deven finally reaches Nur’s residence, however, everything feels dream-like and ideal to him, mostly because of the supra-human stature that he associates with Nur. He felt a “surging expansion of joy at hearing the voice of his ‘deity’”. Deven is utterly rooted in his assumption that these are the “summons” for which he waited all those “empty years”. He feels, he has cast away a “dross of his past existence” and is now approaching “a wondrously illuminated era”. The desperation of wanting that moment to be perfect makes Deven believe that it is actually perfect.
First Meeting With Nur
The initial moments of the meeting are tied up with “intimacy” and “intense closeness”, which is among the few occasional moments of harmony in the text. Deven recites poems in the presence of the “god-like” Nur, ones he read when he was “nostalgic and thought of his father and childhood”. However, soon things become exceedingly bizarre and horrific and the “miraculous intimacy comes to an abrupt end”.
Nur is surrounded by “loutish young men” who are prating about wrestlers. The episode follows with Nur “pummeling and pounding” at the hands of his masseur, eating greasy dishes in a sordid manner, Urdu-Hindi rivalry, Nur grumbling about piles, Nur vomiting, and Deven being forced to clean his vomit. Even to Deven, the thought of talking about poetry becomes “quite grotesque” betwixt all that “garishness”. Deven had envisioned Nur to be aesthetically pleasing, “either surrounded by elderly, sage and dignified litterateurs” or “in divine isolation”. Deven believes Nur is stuck in that place, like himself. Much of this horrific episode becomes a blur for him. After the first journey, every “optimism is gone”.
Back at Mirpore, Deven gets a melodramatic welcome from Sarla. Prominently, home is not a snug haven for him. His cold and loveless relationships “proved inadequate to his expectations”. Deven, almost physically traumatized after encountering Nur, finally tries to invest and form a bond with Manu as an antidote.
The Much-Anticipated Second Trip
The second trip to Delhi takes place after receiving a note from Nur. Deven finds a huge crowd gathered at Nur’s house and is baffled that “someone else, and not Nur [sits] at the center”. For Deven, only Nur could be in the center. Deven thinks of Imtiaz (Nur’s wife, who is revealed to have taken the center stage) as a “so-called poetess”, belonging to the “female mafia”, a villain who reduced Nur to this state. Desai writes the episode through Deven’s lens and an extremely judgmental side of Deven is revealed.
According to him, Imtiaz has no understanding of poetry and can stoop to anything for her crass ambition which seems a convenient alibi for his own inadequacy. We also see an embittered Nur, cursing her in the “most filthy terms”. Deven, who has a very rigid notion of poets, considers this not a “fit subject and not proper language for a poet”. The episode ends with a fight between Nur’s wives and Deven running only to be chided over by Murad.
Readers still see Deven revering poetry and Nur. After getting the required aid from Siddique, Deven believes, “life will make sense now” and if something great will happen, it is because of Nur- “name that opened doors”. The next journey to Delhi is for buying a tape recorder, where we see the ever-bullying Murad, who has always exploited and bullied Deven with “his humiliating jibes” and loudmouth.
Ensuing hopeful visits
The next visit to Nur’s house is again set up with expectations of moving into the “world of poetry and art”, to fulfill the “role allotted in life”- of Nur’s transcriber. The meeting is full of drama and soon turns into extreme anxieties about a “new and fearful element”- Imtiaz’s illness. Imtiaz accuses Deven of being a “jackal” who is there to “feed upon their carcasses”. Soon Nur’s first wife comes to Deven’s rescue, calling him a genuine appreciator. Deven is left struck by the bizarreness of that episode in the courtyard.
Deven did not go to Delhi for a long time after this. We see him as tragically defeated after this episode with disappointment oozing out. He feels a void within himself, “like an empty hole”. His genuine attempts to fill that up, have been defeated. Everything around him adds to the feeling of being choked like a “trapped animal”. The unexpected chance of meeting Nur gave him the “illusion that the door had opened and he could escape” into the “wider world” but in vain. He thinks of his present life as “heaps of rubbish piled up” and of Nur and poetry as a path to “success and immortality”. He sees himself as being on the crossroads of a “nightmare” and “a clear shining horizon”. We see him hustling in his self-appointed role to “safeguard” Nur’s poetry.
The next rise of hope is when the registrar comes to the rescue and Siddique, Deven’s colleague in the Urdu department is able to arrange the required money to be passed onto Safiya. The recording begins and Nur is seen utilizing his moment, feasting and drinking. With Chiku sleeping once and again and Nur indulging in every topic other than poetry, we only see little glimmerings of Nur’s poetry in a “faint, foundering voice” recorded on tape. The tape turns out a “fiasco”. Deven’s personal ambitions of making a grand entrance into the world of academia are crushed.
Final Journey: A Closure
The last time Deven visits Delhi, he only visits Murad’s office and we see the final moment in their friendship. We see clarity in Deven’s actions, ordinarily incoherent, in pushing back Murad. The strange toxic relationship finally comes to an end.
Deven had pinned his hopes on these meetings to be his escape, and Nur to be his savior. His several assumptions about Nur, the poet gets demolished and he is left unable to reconcile with the actual Nur. His prefixed and prejudiced notion of poets and poetry leads to a sharp sense of disappointment. Despite visiting Nur’s house several times, he refuses to adapt his preconception of what he imagines/wants Nur the man to be like. As such each time he sees Nur interacting with his raucous flatterers, or as an admirer of a wrestler, as caught in a messy domestic situation or a voracious eater, he feels let down and disappointed. He needs to see Nur either as an idol he can look up to or as a vulnerable hero, whom he can rescue. Any evidence of Nur’s cunning, his exploitative behavior, his enjoyment of the cheap flattery of his followers, his excessive appetites leaves him full of despair and disappointment. There are moments where he wants to be the custodian of Nur’s poetry but at times, he himself is in the need of that custody. While these journeys do make certain proximity possible between him and Nur, yet he chiefly ends up feeling disappointed with fleeting moments of bonding. Largely he is left overwhelmed with his sense of inadequacy.
Amazon link for the text
In Custody, Anita Desai, Penguin Random House India, 2007.