The House as Symbol of Stagnant Male Tradition in Desai's In Custody

Erica Dillon '99 (English 27, 1997)

Generally, Desai uses houses to symbolize a stagnant male tradition that relegates only domestic labor to women. Desai argues that such exclusionary practices lead to the demise of Urdu poetry by portraying Urdu's male adherents as lazy, timid, or self-absorbed. Although Deven reveres Urdu poetry, he is so ineffectual and terrified that he botches his one attempt at preserving Nur's poetry. Like Beth Heke's preservation of Maori cultural tradition in Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors, Desai figures women, in the form of Imtiaz Begum, as the rescuers of an Urdu tradition. Traditional cultural practices that limit women to domestic roles suffer extinction as economic and social forces change the cultural field; preserving certain traditions requires expanding others.

At Imtiaz Begum's poetry performance Deven asks, "Why did Nur submit to her insane whim of performing in his house, the house of a poet?" (84). Deven believes that the house reflects male accomplishment, rather than the seat of family life, even though women, according to centuries of tradition, exist primarily in the domestic sphere. Nur reiterates this sentiment in his tirade against Imtiaz: "'That is what she really wanted, you see. This house - my house - was the right setting for it. But she was not content with that, she wanted my house, my audience, my friends. She raided my house...'" (86-87). Deven's own house reflects his sense of his life: "No, all he could measure up to was this - this shabby house, its dirty corners, its wretchedness and lovelessness."(67) Similarly, in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the butler, views his life as an outgrowth of Darlington Hall; after the death of Lord Darlington, Darlington Hall, the majority of its rooms dust-sheeted, stands as a symbol for Stevens' own empty interior. Ishiguro forms his novel around the myth of the English country house as a symbol of ideal civility and benign influence. Desai does not explicitly deal with such a general myth, but Deven clearly presumes a correspondence between houses and human worth. Deven believes that his economic circumstances indicate his personal failure, which he then takes out on his wife, Sarla. Deven's proprietary ownership of his house ("the familiar, safe dustbin of their world" (66)) and role of providing for the family limits Sarla's domestic power, which only adds to family discomfort: "At least Deven had his poetry; she had nothing, and so there was an added accusation and bitterness in her look" (68). Unlike Sarla, Imtiaz Begum not only practices poetry, but supports Nur with her performances. Desai positions Imtiaz as part of the next generation of Urdu poets, and as the provider and supporter of Nur's poetry, a fact unrecognized by Deven. Deven's refusal to acknowledge Imtiaz Begum despite her gift for Urdu ("the elegance and floridity of her Urdu entered Deven's ears like a flourish of trumpets and beat at his temples" (195)) harms the future of Urdu poetry, but also contributes to Deven's absurd decision that he provide for Nur himself.

In Siddiqui's family villa, Desai figures a more symbolic representation of the house, one which seemingly stems from Nur's remark that in universities, all one sees of Urdu "is its ghost, wrapped in a shroud" (56). "Siddiqui lived in one of the last of the large old villas of Mirpore, being distantly related to the nawab from Delhi who had built them" (133) and who had also endowed the Lala Ram Lal college, which developed an Urdu department in lieu of naming the college after Muslims. Abid Siddiqui is the only professor in the Urdu department; his prematurely-white hair signifies "the doomed nature of his discipline" (96). Siddiqui's villa symbolizes the trajectory of an Urdu tradition, its former prominence now in ruins. Deven, despite the villa's state of ruin, wonders "how he had dared intrude on the privacy of a man of such property" (134). Siddiqui clearly points out the discrepancy between Deven's idea of his estate and its actual condition, a tendency Deven displayed in Nur's home too: "'Did you think I lived like a nawab in a nawab's palace? Take a look, my friend, take a look - have you ever seen such a ruin?'" (134). Deven, "having been momentarily overcome by the scale of Siddiqui's ancestral home, was relieved to see that it was in such an advanced state of decay as to be very nearly reduced to the state in which everyone else lived in Mirpore" (134). Siddiqui has no family, no connections. His villa's kitchen roof fell in years earlier, and rather than repairing it, he buys food from the bazaar. The kitchen's destruction, a traditional female sphere, the absence of females or descendants in the villa, and Siddiqui's ambiguous sexuality, suggest that as the last physical example of an Urdu tradition, the house belongs to an ever-receding past history and outmoded tradition. "[T]he house no longer stood there. It was a heap of rubble from which dust rose like a ghost, and demolition labour whacked and pounded at whatever remained vertical. The decayed villa groaned as the last of it collapsed" (198). Neglected by those who should attend to it, i.e. men (those privileged to practice poetry), the villa suffers complete destruction


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