Women's Lives in Desai's In Custody

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

Like Sara Suleri and Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai places major emphasis on examining women's lives within the context of Indo-Pakistani culture. In fact, one can argue that the meaning of In Custody turns precisely on that society's unwillingness to draw upon the resources of its women -- in this case a woman poet. Most of Desai's important representations of woman's existence in this novel, however, concern the daily lives of ordinary women in their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and widows. Although trapped, like her husband, in a confining society, Deven's wife Sarla has culturally approved ways of expressing her anger and resentment, however little good they accomplish. "Sarla," the narrator informs us, "never lifted her voice in his presence -- countless generations of Hindu womanhood behind her stood in her way, preventing her from displaying open rebellion. Deven knew she would scream and abuse only when she was safely out of the way, preferably in the kitchen, her own domain. Her other method of defence was to go into the bedroom and snivel, refusing to speak at all, inciting their child to wail in sympathy" [146]. Note how Desai makes speech and space a matter of gender relations and gender roles.

Desai shows that these roles simultaneously support but confine both men and women. From a commonly encountered Western point of view, one of Deven's greatest sources of pain, failure, isolation, and sense of being trapped or imprisons derives directly from the fact he never tells his wife anything about his hopes and plans, sorrows and failures. Near the opening of the final chapter, Deven, who has returned to Mirpore in near-complete failure, sympathetically watches his wife "crawl about the floor, sweeping the dust into little hills before her. He found he was no longer irritated by the sight of her labour, or disgusted by the shabbiness of her limp, worn clothes, or her hunched, twisted posture, her untidy hair or sullen expression. It was all a part of his own humiliation. He considered touching her, putting an arm around her stooped shoulders and drawing her to him. How else could he tell her he shared her disappointment and woe?

"But he could not make that move. 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 to do, where would she go? Such desolation could not be admitted." Shortly after explaining Deven's combination of egotism, sympathy, and frustrated desire to communicate with his wife, the text reveals, perhaps to our surprise, that Sarla takes pleasure in return to her home and position. "Contrary to appearances, she was actually quite pleased to be back in her own domain, to assume all its responsibilities, her indispensable presence in it; in her parents' home she had missed the sense of her own capability and position" [194]. Early in the novel, we learn of her aspirations, which differ so much from those of her husband. What do they tell us about Sarla and her society?

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002