Deven as Anti-Hero

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

Deven, the sad, hopeless, and often helpless protagonist of Anita Desai's In Custody, embodies the modernist ant-hero -- a protagonist with little of the heroic to him. The weak son of a weak father (as he himself sees it), Deven tries to support his wife and child on the meagre salary of a temporary lecturer at an obscure college in the desolate country outside Delhi. He considers himself a failure and thinks of his existence as that of one caught in "a cruel trap, or prison" [19], or maze [see pp. 23, 36, 131-132, 143]. Unable to sleep 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 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. . . . Then where was freedom to be found?" [131]

A lover of Muslim Urdu poetry, he has to teach Hindi literature written by Hindus, and he does so poorly and without spirit. The poetry of Nur, Desai tells us early in the novel, "contained all the enchantment and romance he had ever experienced in his life" [17]. That poetry and several moments of illumination or epiphany give his life whatever hope and joy it has.

Poverty, ignorance, and family heritage trap the generally weak, indecisive, easily led Deven whose near-universal incompetence makes him easy prey for Murad Beg, Nur, and virtually anyone else he encounters. In several ways Desai makes clear that her protagonist is no Christlike, suffering servant: His obvious scorn for those of the lower economic classes, which appears in his encounters with the man on the bus to Delhi (26) and the tailor in the old woman's apartment (164), loses our sympathies just as do his self-pity, treatment of his wife and family, and his ready acceptance in defeat. After returning in defeat -- or what he characteristically takes to be defeat -- from his first meeting with Nur, Deven feels he has met punishment for overreaching: "What vainglory it had been to try to find an entry into Nur's world -- the world of drama and revolving lights and expectations. No, all he could measure up to was this -- this shabby house, its dirty corners, its wretchedness and lovelessness. Looking around it, he felt himself sag with relief and gratitude. At the same time his shoulders drooped in defeat" [67]. Desai's narration shocks us by relating that Deven, who has found himself devastated and depressed by the experience with his idol, also feels "relief and gratitude" at his failure -- because it relieves him of the need for striving further. Deven comes as one in a long line of modernist antiheroes -- a line that reaches from the narrator of Browning's "Childe Roland" and Dostoyevsky's Underground Man to Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock -- but the question remains: is he only a failure?

Deven's lack of courage most lessens him in the reader's eyes when that cowardice combines with an almost fundamental lack of honesty. Just as he often does not want to disturb his depressing, yet comforting world of failure by striving, so, too, he does not wish to recognize any truths that might destabilize his world. Each time Murad, Nut, or someone else disillusions him, he reacts with a brief period of cynicism and then puts on his blinders once more. His worst sin, however, appears when he destroys the poetry written by Nur's young wife without even reading it because he does not have the courage to do so. Clearly, this poetry offers him (and Murad) precisely the material he needs to survive but also the beginnings of a real revival of Urdu poetry -- a poetry in the former language of conquerors. How many reasons can you find for Deven's actions?

Given this devastating portrait of weak, cowardly, ineffectual schlep, what do you make of the his final decision? Does it represent a true self-creating decision that endows him with dignity and moral stature? Or do you see it as another in the series of his many powerful moments that reality soon undercuts? On what basis do you make this judgment? If you take the novel's close as one of affirmation, do you do so because the form of the novel, like a machine, demands it, or because the novelist has prepared you to accept it for other reasons?

Since Desai, like Deven, writes about writers, what is her relation to Deven and Nur?

[Numbers refer to Anita Desai, In Custody, Middlesex: King Penguin, 1985.]