Urdu, Women, and the House: Symbols of Imperiled Tradition in Desai's In Custody

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

"Urdu - language of the court in days of royalty - now languishes in the back lanes and gutters of the city. No palace for it to live in the style to which it is accustomed, no emperors and nawabs to act as its patrons" (In Custody, Penguin Books, 15) complains Murad in Anita Desai's In Custody, trying to convince Deven to interview Nur Shahjehanabadi for his magazine. Murad appears to overdramatize the change in Urdu's social position, but, ironically, the greatest Urdu poet does himself live in a back lane of Delhi's Chandni Chowk bazaar. Even when Deven reaches Nur's residence, located past a gutter overflowing with garbage, across from a gloomy hospital, the obvious reality of Nur's surroundings momentarily fade as Nur calls to Deven in a "voice that could grasp him, as it were, by the roots of his hair and haul him up from the level on which he existed - mean, disordered and hopeless - into another, higher sphere. Another realm it would surely be if his god dwelt there, the domain of poetry, beauty and illumination" (40). Deven imagines that Nur himself resembles his poetry, that Nur exists on this higher plane because his poetry lifts Deven to such heights; Nur's house in the bazaar finally upsets his vision of the conditions 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" (51). Desai uses Nur's poor, untidy, and gloomy dwelling, filled with crude "lafangas of the bazaar world" (50), to argue that social and economic conditions of life are inseparable from, even necessary to, great literature. Deven sits uncomfortably in Nur's room "wondering how, out of all this hubbub, the poet drew the threads and wove his poetry or philosophy. Yet, when he paid attention to his talk, he discovered that it was, after all, about his poetry" (52); although Deven realizes that Nur's poetry thrives amidst such distractions, he cannot accept that Nur should live such a lifestyle, and eventually decides to take Nur's economic support upon himself to the detriment of his own family.

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