Urdu Language in ‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

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Urdu Language in Custody

by – Komal Yadav, published in Vol.II, Issue.XIX, August 2016

Introduction to the Author:
Komal Yadav is a student of English Literature, doing her Masters from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her areas of interest include Indian literature, Dalit literature, African-American literature and Slave narratives.

Urdu language ‘In Custody’

  Written at the backdrop of language controversy in India, ‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai subtly brings out the decline of Urdu from the language of aristocrats to the protagonist’s failed attempt to preserve its last shreds. There is an attempt by Anita Desai to blend the historical realist elements with the fictitious narrative of the text. This paper endeavors to read the novel in the light of Hindi – Urdu conflict of 1900s in India. Attempt is to scrutinize whether Anita Desai is successfully able to bring the linguistic identity of the nation post- partition? It argues that, what is ‘in custody’ is Urdu language which is on the verge of dying. My paper will start with the delineation of reasons responsible for the disintegration of Urdu followed by the analysis of the novel. At the end it will try to bring out the debate on the use of particular language by the author to describe the fate of another language.

Historically, both Hindi and Urdu come out from the common source of khari boli and Brij Bhasa. East India Company contrived this division when they instructed their officials to use English and Urdu for official purposes. British government decision to impose English and Urdu as the language of official use brought eminence to the language.[1]  Some historians talk that decline of Urdu started from the revolt of 1857. The failed rebellion of 1857 led to the formation of nation into diverse groups (Qureshi, 329-330). It was Sayyid Ahmed Khan who advocated linguistic reform suggesting cultural changes for the Urdu speaking community. He considered Urdu language as the most efficient medium for the upliftment of Muslims. But the mission failed due to escalating pressure from rising Hindu lobby. In 1893, Hindi movement which was led by Hindus was boosted by overture of Pracharni Sabha which campaigned in Varanasi in support of Devnagiri script. It was headed by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. Slogans like “Hindi- Hindu-Hindustan” were chanted which not only imposed one language but considered people within the umbrella religion of Hinduism. Hindi movement real aim was to make distinct identity of Hindi, by making it as a symbol of Indian culture and medium of education and instruction (king, 232). Hindustani, which till now was devoid of any religious connotations is now started being viewed on the basis of religion. This led to a sense of separatism in the Indian community. Jyotindra Das Gupta links the decline of Urdu to 1882, when Hindi movement pushed for the widespread teaching of Hindi at primary and secondary level.

Ajiz Ahmad in “Theory: classes, nations, literatures” points out three reasons for the re-distribution of the community that changed the perspective towards Urdu after partition. One of the most significant reasons is mass migration, which forced people to shift near the newly formed borders. Language not only carried the cultural baggage but also started symbolizing religion and loyalty to the nation. Urdu was communalized as the language of the Muslims. The declaration of Urdu as the national language of Pakistan added fuel to the fire. Another reason was government of India’s decision to use Hindi in Devnagiri script as the official language along with English for first fifteen years instead of Hindustani .Hindustani which is an amalgamation of both Hindi and Urdu served as the ‘living link’ between Hindus and Muslims   ( as quoted in the Criterion: Ahmad,201-2). Ajiz is of the view that, due to the lack of common ground Hindustani, the communal sensitivity of Urdu language is becoming stronger.

In an interview with Magda Costa, Desai states that there is an attempt in ‘In Custody’, to symbolize the decay of Urdu language. She is nostalgic about the way Urdu was enjoyed earlier in Old Delhi. Her greatest concern is the lack of audience, which serves as a detrimental factor in its survival.

Opening in media res, the novel brings out the predicament of Urdu language. Through the juxtaposition of Hindi and Urdu, Desai is able to highlight the changes in the dynamics of culture after the partition. Anita Desai endeavors to draw reader’s notice to this bilingual scene in India post- partition. In the novel, she points out that Urdu now ‘languishes’ devoid of any patrons. Deven, the anti-hero of the novel attempts to preserve the last shreds of Urdu by interviewing a famous Urdu poet Nur. Interestingly, the year of the publication of the book coincides with the demise of the great Urdu poet Faiz. This encourages us to see Nur as the symbolic representation of Faiz, since the novel also ends with the death of the poet.

To highlight the bleak and pessimistic efforts made by Deven, Anita Desai describes the disturbed family scene depicting fracture between the spouses. Since Deven does not come from any elite background he is forced to live at the fringes of his culture. The whistle of the train that he constantly hears seems to be the call of life to escape his economic vows. The astonishing prospect of interviewing Nur brings a temporary hope to escape this cage like existence but it is a kind of freedom that is packed with fear and danger. This sense of danger is illustrated during his first journey to Delhi .At interstate bus terminal he faces an ominous forewarning when he sees a dead fly floating in the tea. This indication is interceded through omniscient narrator who bring to fore the symbolic motif of death. The description of a dog, the crows and the fly highlights this fact. This event indicates that his journey has ended before it even started because language he desires to save is already dead.

Desai links the theme of language to the religion and politics. Deven when applies for leave to interview Nur, Trivedi, his head of the department, asks him to get his Muslim thoughts away from his department. He says “I’ll warn the RSS you are a traitor” (Desai, 163). This stand encapsulates the distrust and fear of the nation where language, ironically becomes marker of religion and faithfulness to the nation. The protagonist of the novel finds himself disempowered in using his mother tongue Urdu, in post- partition India. His passion and his profession are at odds with each other. Though a lover of Urdu poetry he is forced to teach Hindi in a local college for his economic stability. This indicates the rising threat to Urdu’s existence.

Anita Desai’s politics can be discerned from her attempt to trace the history of Mirpore by linking it to the presence of Muslims aristocracy, pointed by the description of pink marbled mosque, Haveli build by the Nawab after 1857. But she does not connect Hinduism with any such past. She points out that temple in Mirpore have no history. She is able to bring out the stratification of the society by indicating that police was deployed during Holi to avoid clashes between the communities. This stratification of society also points to the linguistic divisions within the community. As in the novel, Muslims accuses Hindi as the “vegetable monster” while Urdu books are not even considered “worthy” for Sahitya academy award. With the depiction of Delhi and Nur, Anita Desai attempts to form an image of old “good times” which Deven associates with Urdu language.

Murad and Siddiqui stands as the two representative Muslims in the novel. Murad tries to preserve the last works of Urdu in his journal Aawaz. His proposition to take Urdu   into custody   results in silences symbolizing the silence of Urdu poetry (Yakin, 6). He is nostalgic about the glorious past enjoyed by Urdu during Mughal times. On the contrary, Siddiqui and his worsening Haveli capture the vanishing culture which he represents. Being a professor in Urdu department, he is least interested in doing any efforts to save Urdu language. Also, he decides to sell his Haveli to a builder which is symbolic of lost Muslim affluence. This depiction emphasizes the idea that the class which Siddiqui represents can no longer be the guardian of Urdu .Through his depiction, Desai wants to highlight that not only the external pressure but the irresponsible behavior of proponents of Urdu is also a factor responsible for Urdu’s disintegration.

The novel begins with Murad and Deven’s friendship but by the time we reach to the end there is a hint of breakdown and uneasiness between them. Deven is not only apprehended by the fear that he has taken the wrong project but also become skeptical about his friendship with Murad. The friendship which symbolically stood for co-existence of not only Hindi and Urdu, but also harmony between two cultures, disintegrates at last. Murad feels he is on higher ethical ground because unlike Deven, he has not yielded to Hindi. His job as an editor exhibits his allegiance to the Urdu tradition despite being bounded with the worries of thinning subscriptions, stumpy readership and swelling production costs. Deven’s lost friendship is another marker of a tradition which is lost.

The novel is replete with symbolic imageries of disintegration, hopelessness and failure. Murad is depicted as having scarred face, blemishes, pockmarks which stands as a metaphor for Urdu and his disdain for Hindi. However, Desai very cautiously is able to shun any sense of communal rejection of Hindus by Murad. This is highlighted when Murad bestows custody of Urdu on Deven. Deven not only become the custodian of Urdu language but also the custodian of heart and soul of Nur.

In Desai’s recitation Nur becomes the means to Urdu’s restitution. Nur when introduced in the novel is the poet at the end of his career. Deven is shocked to see Nur’s feet are “made of clay”. Nur and his room stand symptomatic of putrefying Urdu culture. The murky room, dirty and old furniture in Nur’s room shows the position of Urdu poetry post partition. It replicates the true picture of language which is on the verge of dying. The imagined ideal picture of the poet smashes when Deven expecting him to be encircled by intellectuals and poets of his status, finds him surrounded with people who are not concerned about his poetry but are all drunkards.

Contrary to our expectations Nur is unwilling to part with lifestyles of an aristocrat’s lineage and seems to be unaffected by a progressive outlook. He is preoccupied with the pigeons, his body is drenched with an excess of rich foods and alcohol, and he lives in a dusty house and entertains lavishly. His bodily ailments epitomize the dismayed state of Urdu. Attack of pigeons on him, his vomiting during a Mushaira, and Nur forgetting all his poetry all these symbolic references point to the lowly state of not only Urdu but also of poetry. His pain is personified in his alter ego, Deven. Deven is ensnared by the harsh realities of a material world. Having had the upper hand in his own domestic life, Deven is bewildered by the peculiar power structure of Nur’s household which is dominated by his second wife.

The incidence of the failure of tradition and modernity moves simultaneously .The recorder used in recording the poems of Nur is a symbol of modernity which fails to record the voice of tradition of pre modern India. Deven is suggested to record the interview but he sees it as a mocking gesture to his ideal poet. He is of the view that it will reduce his poetry to some kind of cinema. The failed recordings are symptomatic of dysfunctional state of Urdu .Chiku’s ineptitude in assisting tape recorder is a metaphor for the mishandling of the project of language revival.

It can be argued that the problem in Desai’s story is that she does not come up with any other alternative of Urdu. Her vision of Urdu is totally opposite from Intizar Husain. According to Husain, Urdu cannot be linked with only one region and culture because it is hybrid in nature and adaptable to new regions. Can we then say Desai’s Urdu is fated to wilt away in the summer of Mirpore unable to uphold the hopes of its sustenance?

In an essay on Indian writing in English, Salman Rushdie pointed that Anita Desai’s novel “makes fine use of English to depict the decay of any other language”. Meenakshi Mukherjee points out that there is an anxiety of Indianness in Indian writer writing in English. English is the language which is associated with our colonial past. The use of ‘English’ even though now enjoys privileged position; nevertheless its lack of tradition attaches a certain sense of betrayal to it. Its use comes with the anxiety of undefined cultural values. To Meenakshi Mukherjee, the choice of language is more social than moral. They are entangled in the questions of gender, class and region. However, Anita Desai in “the Indian writers’ problem” valorizes English as an only suitable substitute. To her act of writing is more a matter of ‘instinct’ rather than an act of deliberation or reason and choice. She dismantles the whole debates regarding writer choice of language by pointing out that the aim of writing is to ‘only connect’ without any conscious choice of the language.

So, Desai uses English to depict the nostalgic attitude of her characters for the past glory enjoyed by Urdu. Desai in her novel questions the ‘imperialism of Hindi’ (Salman Rushdie) which is considered as the only voice of modernity and means for material prosperity. She questions the segregation of tradition by portraying a lamenting farewell to a language which is encapsulated as a practice only left for remembrance rather than continuing. Despite his attempts Deven is unable to fill in the metaphorical gap between Mirpore and Delhi as Nur points out “Urdu is suppose to have died…the city of Delhi has absorbed another memory” (Desai, 39). Therefore, her novel can be read as a microcosmic representation of decaying Urdu language and culture in India.

[1] Its official use was included to the vernaculars on 4 September 1837. In south, it was patronized by Nizam of Hyderabad and it was recognized in states of Bihar, Punjab, Awadh and united providence.




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King, Christopher. One language, two scripts: the Hindi movement in Nineteenth century north India. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1994, pg-232.

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Yakin, Amina. “The communalization and disintegration of Urdu in Anita Desai’s in Custody”.ed.2004

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