Character and Characterization in Desai's In Custody: Some Questions

Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Spring 1997

1. In Meatless Days Sara Suleri uses certain characters as foils to develop other characters with comparison and contrast. What effect does a comparison of Desai's characters from In Custody with each other have on our perceptions of them as individuals, especially considering the predominantly low opinions we most naturally hold of them? [Jeremy Finer]

2. Deven, like Rushdie's Omar Khayyam Shakil, appears an unlikely hero, a cringing, morose coward unable to push through life. How does this representation of Deven relate to the subject of Urdu, along with its various connotations, as embodied in the Urdu poet Nur? "Seeing that line waver and break up and come together again upon the sheet of blue paper, Deven felt as if he were seeing all the straight lines and cramped alphabet of his small, tight life wavering and dissolving and making way for a wave of freshness, motion, even was Nur, Nur's poetry and Nur's person; Nur who had caused this thrust, this rush that was sweeping up from outside" (In Custody, 104). [Erica Dillon]

3. Deven has been described as a "modernist anti-hero," a protagonist with little heroic. Is a heroic or at least sympathetic character critical to a tragic story? Why are all the characters in the novel described negatively and grotesquely? What effect does this have on our reading of Deven? [Lucia Duncan]

5. Are the characters in Anita Desai's book likeable? Are Deven's many adversaries real or imagined? Is the reader made to feel sorry for the protagonist, or does he seem largely at fault for his own situation? Do we look upon him with pity or disgust? What emotions is Desai trying to evoke through her portrayal of different characters in this book? [Phoebe Koch]

6. Desai describes the aspirations of female characters in the novel in different ways. Sarla is portrayed as having had her hopes for a life with modern appliances deferred by her husband's choice of profession. Imtiaz Begum wanted her work to be judged by the same standards as was the work of male poets. In Sarla's case Desai presents a female character who seemed contented with the traditional male-dominated socio-political power structure. Even her lofty aspirations of owning fan, 'phone, and frigidaire as a girl were intertwined with the idea of marriage. This power structure was so pronounced that Deven was even prompted to remark that he could not reveal to his wife that he shared her disappointment because "it would have permanently undermined his position of power over her, a position that was as important to her as to him: if she ceased to believe in it, what would there be for her to do?" Imtiaz, however, strived for actual gender equity. In her letter to Deven she wrote challenging him to judge her enclosed verse fairly and to consider the obstacles that she as a female poet encountered. Is Desai making the statement that Sarla and Imtiaz are representative of their respective Hindu and Muslim cultures as the statement "countless generations of Hindu womanhood behind her stood in her way" would seem to attest? Discuss the implications. [Uzoma Ukomadu]

Main Overview India Overview Anita Desai In Custody Characterization