Anita Desai’s “In Custody” : A clash between reality and illusion

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Anita Desai’s “In Custody”: A clash between reality and illusion

                                                Mrs. V.Subha Vol.III Issue-XXIV January 2017

About the Author: 

Mrs. V. Subha, is qualified as M. A., M. Phil. in English and she is working as Assistant Professor of English in Govindammal Aditanar College for Women, Tiruchendur – 628215, Tamil Nadu, India. Her area of specialization is Indian Writings in English. She has around 6 years of teaching experience.


In the Novel “In Custody” Anita Desai depicts the life of Devan, a lecturer in Hindi. Illusion refers to the workings of imaginations but in different theoretical models it has more force. In psychoanalysis fantasies are often compensatory of wish-fulfillment that allows the dreamer to cope with disappointment and the dreamer may even convince him or herself that the fantasy is real. Illusion is described as hallucination or imagination.It is an actual desire, fear or obsession which finds expression in various ways. The novel “In Custody”  reflects Devan’s love for Urdu poetry and his fantasy on the great hero Nur leads him to sadness, hopelessness and often helplessness. He imagines that Nur himself resembles his poetry and he exists on this higher plane because his poetry lifts Devan to such heights. His endeavour to write a biographical retrospect about Nur is challenged by unfavourable circumstances and persons. Devan with his hope and tenaciousness elevate the despondency of Nur. Devan who idealizes Urdu poetry and the poet encounters his hero encircled misery and confusion. Devan wishes to become an Urdu poet from his childhood but could not do so because of his worldly responsibilities and eventually become a lecturer. Devan’s dream clashes with the realism of Nur the Urdu poet. The paper entitled   Anita Desai’s “In Custody”: A clash between reality and illusion brings out the struggle of Devan being trapped in fantasy and realism.

Key words: Fantasy, Realism, Illusion, dream and Imagination


Fiction, being the most significant and powerful foam of literary expression today has acquired a prestigious position in the Indo-English literature. It is commonly agreed that the novel is the readiest and most acceptable way of embodying experiences and ideas in the context of our time. Thus Indian writing in English has found a voice in the fabric of post colonial literature. Fiction by women writers add grandeur in the plethora of Indian writing by reshaping and moulding their experiences with their unique sensibility. Indian women writers provide insights, a wealth of understanding, a reservoir of meanings and a basis of discussion in their work.

Anita Desai is a modern Indo-English writer, not only in Indian but also in the world of fiction writing. She emerged on the literary horizon after Independence, focusing on the contemporary issues. Desai has ordered a new dimension to the contemporary Indian English fiction. She has secured a unique and significant place due to her innovative thematic concerns and these in her fiction with feminine sensibility. Her preoccupation is explored of deep psychic of her character. She has shown her craftsmanship in her novels like Cry, the Peacock (1963), Voices in the City (1965), Fire on the Mountain (1977), In Custody (1964), Feasting (1998),   and The ZigZag way (2004).

Anita Desai’s novels nd short stories provide the most striking formulation of the tormented predicament of the modern age, namely, the problem of inaccessibility of the individual. Her works exemplify the fractioned human consciousness and the inner tensions and feelings that leave individuals painfully and permanently self-conscious and subject to brooding moods of depression and despair. She portrays the human beings as brutally victimized by the polarization which characterizes modern Indian society. The fiction of Desai is relevant to all times because she writes about the predicament of modern man. She digs in to man inner psyche and goes beyond the skin and the flesh. Literature for her is not a means of escaping reality but an exploration and an inquiry. She prefers the private to the public world and avoid from the traditional grooves of external reality and physical world. In fact, her real concern is the exploration of human psyche, inner climate and she reveals the mystery of the inner life of a character.

The revelation of post colonialism and imperialism tracks a crisis cross of cultures, traditions, displacement, Diasporas, alienation and consequential chain of illusions and disillusions. A parallel is drawn between fiction and history in relation to the languages. In everyday languages fantasy refers to the workings of imagination but in different theoretical models it has more force. In psychoanalysis, fantasies are often compensatory of wish fulfillment that allows the dreamer to cope with disappointment and the dreamer may even convince him or herself that the fantasy is real.

Desai herself states that “In Custody” is an attempt to symbolize the decay of Urdu language. This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The protagonist of this novel, Devan Sharma comes from a lower middle class family. He is a junior lecturer in Hindi literature, at Mirapore a small town near Delhi in a provincial college. He endures the pangs of abortive pursuits in professional and domestic life. He seeks to reach out into a wider world in the hope of self fulfillment. Desai depicts him as an average man who lacks initiative traits due to his timid nature. He leads an unhappy domestic life with his wife Sarala and small son Manu. He considers himself a failure and thinks of his existence as that of one caught in “a cruel or prison” (p.19). Unable to stop one night, he paces up and down thinking that

“… he must look like a caged animal in a zoo… And that was all he was – a trapped animal. In his youth, he had the illusion of having free will, not knowing he was in a trap. Marriage, a family and a job had placed him in this cage; now there was no way out of it. The unexpected friendship with Nur had given him the illusion that the door of the trap had opened and he could escape after all into a wider world that lay outside but a closer familiarity with the poet had shown him that what he thought of as ‘ the wider world ‘ was an illusion too…”(p.131).

A lover of Muslim Urdu poetry Devan has to teach Hindi literature written by Hindus and he does so poorly and without spirit. He longs from his childhood, to become a poet but could not do so because of his worldly responsibilities and eventually becomes a Hindi lecturer. The story revolves around Devan, His feelings and his excitement when he gets the chance to interview the greatest and living Urdu poet Nur Shahjehanabadi. Devan’s love for Urdu language is an  illusion whereas his job as Hindi Lecturer is the realism.

Anita Desai depicts very impressively the conflict between fantasy and realism in the novel “In Custody”. The class situation forces the hero to enter into fantasies of sudden wealth, unexpected cheques, acceptance in the literary circles of the metropolis. Only for his survival he works as a Hindi lecturer. His meeting with his friend Murad brings a total change in his life. Devan complains to Murad about non-payment for his contributions to the Urdu magazine Awaaz. He advises Devan to go to meet Nur at Delhi. Being inspired by Nur, he loves Urdu poetry. To fulfil his unsatisfied desire of becoming Urdu lecturer, he decides to go to Delhi and meet Nur. But the first visit to the house of Nur makes him feel the suffocating, cruel nature of Nur’s wife. Devan runs away from there in a huff. Ironically, Devan’s ideal Urdu poet Nur lives in a back lane of Delhi’s Chandini Chowk bazaar. Even when Devan reaches Nur’s residence, located past a gutter overflowing with garbage across from a gloomy hospital. Devan imagines that Nur himself resembles his poetry, that Nur exists on this higher plane because his poetry lifts Devan to such heights. Nur’s house in the bazaar finally upsets his vision of the condition such a man would inhabit.

“He had pictured him living either surrounded by elderly, sage and dignified litterateurs or else entirely alone, in divine isolation”(p.51). Devan expects his poetic hero Nur to sit with him and speak with him about the beauty of his verse. But contrary to his thoughts Nur’s houses full of parasitic hangers.

Desai depicts the picture of village roads, temples, houses, wells and villages very minutely. She points out the conflict between illusion and reality by depicting the changed picture of village, killing the calm and healthy past life. Devan memorizes those days full of enjoyment at the background of industrial world. The reference of Nur and his thoughts,” The first white hair on a man’s head appearing like a white flower out of grave.” (p.26) indicates the fantasy avoiding the realism. The clash between illusion and reality showed very cleverly in the following line.

“ Life is no more than a funeral procession winding towards the grave, its small joys, the flowers of funeral wreaths…” (p.26).

Devan leads a sad and unhappy life and at that time comes a ray of hope in the form of his childhood friend and companion Murad. He is the Editor of an Urdu magazine that aims to publish long last unpublished poems of the famous poet Nur shahjenahabad. Murad gives the opportunity to Devan to interview the great poet. As a great lover of Urdu poems, Devan eagerly goes to meet his favourite poet. Devan’s sense of feeling of Godly call for him indicates illusion that forces him to forget the realism. The entry into the company of the poet, Devan senses the feeling of relief. Here he feels,

“He casting away the meanness and dross of his past existence and steadily approaching a new and wonderously illuminated era.”(p.40)

We may observe the illusion’s overcoming on the realism. The poet’s response to Devan reflects the illusion as: “Urdu language is dead, finished. So, now you see its corpse lying here, waiting to be buried.”(p.42)

The novel bears Desai’s special imprint of observation of the minutia of the old Delhi living, of the eccentricities of Nur and Shenanigans around the news. Devan has no emotional battles to conquer or reckon with the imponderables of existence:”All through his childhood and youth he had known only one way to deal life and that was to lie low and remain invisible”.(p.20) Murad mocks him out of his stupor to rededicate himself to his nascent love for Urdu poetry. Devan’s quest to interview the doyen of Urdu poetry however seems affected by numerous malefic of his nativity. He flounders at every step of his progress while the poet recedes spatially and becomes inaccessible. For a drop of manna Devan traverses the squalor and stench of the veritable Hades separating him from his ideal. Nur is seen residing over his congregation of “ lotus… shopkeepers, clerks, bookies and unemployed parasites”p.50. Devan had visualized the “great poet” differently:   “ He had pictured him living either surrounded by elderly, sage and dignified litterateurs… in divine isolation”(p51) His grandiose visions at the feet of the master, listening and scribbling the inspired and sublime occurrences invariably end up in situations both comic and contemptuous.

When Devan observes and watches the real life of poet, he understands that Nur devotes his time for creating works and enjoying the parties and neglecting his family life. The life of literary men like Nur is caught between realism and illusion. They receive respect outside the house but fail to get the same in their house. The normal life of household of literary man is seen disturbed as they run after the worldwide fame. Devan feels very nervous at this scene and runs out being failed to connect the realism and illusion observed in the life of the poet.

Devan reminds of his dead father who gets experiences with his mother and traps him into fantasy and realism. He used to apologize to his wife as “wife had expected more from a husband and felt grievously disappointed at the little he had made of his life.”(p.73) Devan’s department friend siddiqui comments on Devan’s idea of becoming a biographer of Nur. He says that Devan becomes the victim of the fantasy. Devan also feels very happy to enter into dreamy world believing it as the reality. Thus, he frequently thinks of this dreamy world and feels satisfied imagining it a real life. Devan imagines that he was taking Nur’s poetry into safe custody and he himself a custodian of Nur’s genius.

Devan feels himself in a “kind of zoo in which he could not hope to find freedom” (p131) In despair he surmises “All he knew was that he who had set out to hunt Nur down being hunted down himself, the prey” (p.143). A victim of his own facile optimism, Devan unlentingly pursues the incantatory moments of the muse despite the exploitative demands of Nur and his Begum. Devan conducts himself with dignity and earnestness, though every step he takes is stymied, Devan doggedly pursues the illusion hopeful to decipher his poverty which poured stutteringly amidst mouthfuls of briyani and drink.

Desai shows that how Devan’s dreams about his poetic hero Nur come to disaster in the novel “In custody”. After his meeting with Murad, he imagines of his future to achieve fame and fufil his dreams. But all the dreams of Devan finally turn into a failure. His interview with his ideal hero ends up in disaster and he remains deserted at the end of the story. Towards the end of the novel, when everyone deserts him Devan suddenly finds his own strengths and learns to accept his responsibilities with fortitude. Mirapur and Delhi are two different settings and his travel between them teaches him to come out of his illusion, fantasies and to face the reality.

Devan’s love for Urdu poetry makes him to accept the proposal of his friend Murad. Devan is excited about the project, however becomes a complicated one as the novel progresses. Instead of just an interview, Devan assumes the responsibility of writing a biography of Nur. His attempt to tape the interviews and the poet’s recitation of new poems ends in a series of disasters. By the end of the novel, Devan is about to lose his job and his creditors are after him. Ha has been used by the poet and his irresponsible cronies. Despite his frustrations, fears and disillusionment, Devan does not give up his commitments. “ He thought of Nur’s poetry being read, the sound of it softly murmuring in his ears. He had accepted the gift of Nur’s poetry and that meant he was custodian of Nur’s soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure.”(p.204)

In Custody, Desai however like her earlier novels ends up with positive note. Devan is able to perceive a ray of hope even in his boundless suffering and humiliation. Towards the end of the novel, he becomes convinced. The sunlight dissolving the darkness of the night before is symbolic of the emergence of new courageous “self” of Devan dispersing his previous timid, vulnerable self.

Works Cited:

  1. Desai, Anita (1994) In Custody, Penguin Books, New Delhi.
  2. Pathak, R.S. Indian Fiction in English, New Delhi Northern Book Centre, 1990.
  3. Kripal, Vinay (1986) An Image of India: A Study of Anita Desai’s “ In Custody” Ariel, vol.17,No.4
  4. Waheed,M.A.”From Escapism to Realism : In Custody” The novels of Ruth Jhabvala and Anita Desai: A Study in the Marital Discord , New Delhi, Prestige books,2007
  5. R.Rajagopal, A Critical Study of the novels of Anita Desai, 1999, Atlantic Publishers, New Delhi.
Explore More in: Academic Research Paper

Read More Articles: