Reading Questions for Desai's In Custody

Members of English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Spring 1997

1. "You say it has freed him from the law of gravity and sent him into space--but in what kind of vehicle? A vehicle that is made of steel is only a steel trap. Man is not set free by the aeroplane, he is trapped in it. And how is the soul of the poet to rise and float when you keep trying to catch it in a box between your knees?" (153) Considering Nur's quotation above, as well as the comic yet tragic tape recording episode, how is technology a custodian of sorts? Does Desai's description of Delhi seem reminiscent of Soyinka's passage regarding Afro-pop? [Kate Cook]

2. By the end of the novel we have seen Deven fail in several instances to become companion with his wife, we've seen him make one lonely effort to involve himself in his son's life with no follow-up or follow-through, and we've seen him make a mess time after time of his situation with Nur through which he could have turned his career around. But the novel ends with a distinct change in tone:

The day would begin, with its calamities. They would flash out of the sky and cut him down like swords. He would run to meet them. He ran, stopping only to pull a branch of thorns from under his foot. (204)

Are we to understand that Deven is any better off than he was before? What about his experience with Nur and Nur's poetry enables him this newfound sense of resolve? Katie Finin]


Thinking in strict prose that he must look like a caged animal in a zoo to any creature that might be looking down at earth from another planet. And that was all he was-a trapped animal. In his youth he had had the illusion of 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 -- it was only a kind of zoo in which he could not hope to find freedom, he would only blunder into another cage inhabited by some other trapped animal. Being an illustrious poet had drawn people to the zoo to come and stare at him but Nur had not escaped from his cage for all that- he was as trapped as Deven was even if his cage was more prominent and attracted more attention. Still, it was just a cage in a row of cages. Cage, cage. Trap, trap. (131)

Is it possible for Deven to free himself or will he always have to pull "a branch of thorns from under his foot" (204)? [Laura Gelfman]

4. Desai writes that Deven "often had nightmares in which he struggled towards an unspecified destination but was repeatedly waylaid and deflected, never in any stretch of sleep arriving at it any more than he did in walking. His feet seemed to be enmesshed in the sticky net of the nightmare that would not let him escape at any level of consciousness" (31). How does this statement correctly characterize Deven? What sections of the novel show Deven in this trapped state? Does he break out of this trap at any point in the novel? [Neel Parekh}

5. "He had imagined that he was taking Nur's poetry into safe custody, and not realized that if he was to be custodian of Nur's genius, then Nur would become his custodian and place him in custody too. This alliance could be considered an unendurable burden-- or else a shining honor. Both demanded an equal strength." How does this passage on page 203, in chapter 11 relate to the title of Desai's work? How does it relate to the view of poetry presented on page 54, in chapter 3: "That, he [Deven] 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-- placed frightening and inexplicable experiences like time and death at a point where they could be seen and studied, in safety." What is safe and safety in In Custody? [Elissa Popoff]

6. Who or what is "in custody" in Desai's novel? Who or what is a "custodian"? [Barnali Tahbildar]

7. The figure of Salman Rushdie looms large in the contexts of the Indian and Pakistani texts we have read so far: he of course wrote Shame, the cover of Meatless Days quotes a critic who terms Suleri a "poscolonial Proust to Rushdie's phantasmagorical Pynchon," and Rushdie himself offers an admiring notice on the back cover of In Custody.

Rushdie's fame stems mostly from the death sentence issued against him for writing The Satanic Verses. The threat of violent retribution is a strange way to achieve fame, and an even stranger way to become the spokesperson for an entire region of the world, which is essentially how he seems to be imagined by the Anglophone reading and publishing community. Given this context and history, can we help but read other works from India and Pakistan through the lens of Rushdie's notoriety and style? How do Rushdie's thinking, writing, and politics impact our reading of Desai? What does it mean to read In Custody through Rushdie? What do we gain and what do we lose by situating Desai (and Suleri) in this context? [Sage Wilson]

See also questions about character and characterization in the novel.

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Last Modified: 15 March, 2002