Deven, Desai's protagonist, believes in Urdu poetry that is pure, uncorrupted, and distant from banal reality.
That, he saw, was the glory of poets that they could distance events and emotions, place them where perspective made it possible to view things clearly and calmly. He realized that he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable. That was what Nur's verse did ñ placed frightening things like time and death at a point where they could be seen and studied, in safety. (167)
Sitting there while the dusk gathered, Deven recalled, incongruously enough, the conversation in the canteen with Jayadev, how they had envied their scientist colleagues who had at their command the discipline of mathematics, of geometry, in which every question had its answer and every problem its solution. If art, if poetry, could be made to submit their answers, not merely contain them within perfect, unblemished shapes, but to release them and make them available, then -- he thought, then -- But then the bubble would be breached and burst, and it would no longer be perfect. And if it were not perfect, and constant, then it would all have been nothing, it would be nothing. (192)
Deven cannot apply poetry to his life because he believes poetry is enclosed in a bubble, outside the dirt and grime of this present world. Deven cannot accept the greasy food, greedy guests, haggling wives, the vomit, and the dirt that make up Nur's life. At the end of the novel, when faced with two conflicting ideals of Nur, one of the poet, reserved, diginified, and pure, the other the reality of a senile, weak, caged old man, Deven tries "to think of him as separate from his letters, his senile demands, to feel again for him as he had when Nur had first allowed him into his presence, in his still, shaded study" (196).
Deven's ideas about poetry and poets define his reception of Imtiaz Begum's poetry. When he first hears her read, he immediately thinks of her only as an imitation of Nur.
How could she claim monopoly over the stage with her raucous singing that now afflicted their ears, her stagey recitation of melodramatic and third-rate verse when the true poet, the great poet, sat huddled and silent, ignored an uncelebrated, Deven asked himself, determinedly not listening with more than a fraction of his attention.... Yes, why not call a monkey trainer from the street and watch a monkey perform instead? It would not be very different and the monkey would not demand so much applause and attention... Oh it was all very beautiful, very feeling, very clever. Oh she had learned her tricks very well, the monkey. Did she not have the best teacher in the world to put these images, this language into her head? It was clear that she had learnt everything from him, from Nur, and it was disgraceful how she was imitating his verses, parodying his skills, flaunting before his face what she had stolen from him so slyly, so cunningly. . . . Deven was filled with an immense need to make amends and save the poet from whatever new impurities that painted creature on the divan had devised for him that evening. (82)
Deven is unable to see Imtiaz's Begum as a poet because he views hero only in relation to Nur, and he sees her as a copy, secondary and therefore substandard. He calls her a trained monkey, refusing to listen to her and criticizing her poetry because it consists of appeals to emotion, rather than what he believes are the higher ideals of Nur's poetry.Using Nur as both a mouthpiece and an example, Desai criticizes Deven's definition of true poets and poetry, which falsely constructs categories of pure and impure, original and copy. Deven thinks of Nur as an original, pure poet, and poetry as removed, aesthetic, unrelated to this world. By emphasizing Nur's all-too-worldly life, Desai makes certain that readers disagree. Nur himself recognizes Deven's attitude towards poetry, and life, and he criticizes it. As Deven is attempting to tape only Nur's "poetry," and separate it from the arguing, drunken jests, and chatter, Nur says, "Has this dilemma come upon you to then? This sifting and selecting from the debris of our lives? It can't be done my friend, it can't be done, I learnt that long ago" (175). By pointing out the falsity of Deven's definition and showing that poetry cannot be divorced from real life, Nur prepares us for ther passage when when Imtiaz explains how the sexism and patriarchy color Deven's concept of the pure, reserved poet. In Imtiaz's letter, she points out that Deven's ideas about poetry falsely limits the Urdu canon, dooming Urdu poetry and language to an early death by unjustly excluding female poets.
Judged by Nur Sahib's standards, the poems I enclose for you to read may appear to be minor works. Kindly remember that unlike Nur Sahib and unlike your respected self, I am a woman and have had no education but what I have found and seized for myself. Unlike poets and scholars who have won distinctions, I have had no patron apart from my honoured husband, no encouragement and no sympathy. Yet there must have been some natural gift if Nur Sahib himself was impressed by my early verse. ... I am enclosing my latest poems for you to read and study and judge if they do not have some merit of their own. Let me see if you are strong enough to face them and admit to their merit. Or if they fill you with fear and insecurity because they threaten you with danger -- danger that your superiority to women may become questionable. When you rose to your feet and left the mehfil while I was singing my verse, was it not because you feared I might eclipse the verse of Nur Sahib and other male poets whom you revere? Was it not intolerable to you that a woman should match their gifts and even outstrip them? Are you not guilty of assuming that because you are male, you have a right to brains, talent, reputation and achievement, while I, because I was born female, am condemned to find what satisfaction I can in being maligned, mocked, ignored and neglected? Is it not you who has made me play the role of the loose woman in gaudy garments by refusing to take my work seriously and giving me just that much regard that you would extend to even a failure in the arts as long as the artist was male? In this unfair world that you have created what else could I have been but what I am? (195)
Of course, Imtiaz has read Deven's motives correctly, and Deven does not have the courage to read her poetry. in this gesture he perpetuates the structure that, as a lover of Urdu, oppresses him, he cannot discard it because as a man he wished to preserve his power over women.
For Desai, a shift in gender roles promises rejuvenation, a solution, as well as rectification. Desai's strategy of questioning the naturalness and originality of Deven's aesthetic, which upsets the hierarchy between Nur and Imtiaz, calls to mind Jaques Derrida's theories of the sign. Like Timothy Mo and Sara Suleri, Desai contests the category of authentic, static, pure culture and welcomes change.