Deven in Desai's In Custody

Elissa Popoff, English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, 1997

Deven, the protagonist of Anita Desai's In Custody, is a feckless fool on a par with Miguel de Unamuno's Augusto Pérez, the protagonist of Niebla who when walking down a street allows the crowd to decide his course. However, unlike Augusto who eventually asserts himself and develops a strong identity saying, "Sí, yo soy yo," Deven at the novel's end still remains rudderless and ineffectual. Does Deven's nature make him more accessible, so to speak, to the reader? Does this allow him to serve as a vehicle through which the reader can glean information on the debates raging in the novel? Returning to the Niebla comparison, Augusto at the end of that work confronts his God by entering into a discussion with the author Unamuno, who inserts himself into the narrative. It is interesting to compare the reactions of Augusto with those of Deven when he first meets Nur (from page 38 onwards for a few pages, chapter three). How do Nur and his poetry form part of Deven's reality and persona? How does this relationship illustrate the linkage(s) between literature and so-called reality? How do you think Desai would like her own work to fit into a reader's life?

He stopped, panting for breath, on the canal bank and stared at the water that stopped and turned concentrically in a whirlpool at that point. The whirlpool was an opening into the water, leading into its depths. But these were dark and obscure. The sky was filling with a grey light that was dissolving the dense blackness of night. It glistened upon a field of white pampas grass which waved in a sudden breeze that had sprung up, laughing, waving and rustling through the grasses with a live, rippling sound. He thought of Nur's poetry being read, the sound of it softly murmuring in his ears. He had accepted the gift of Nur's poetry and that meant he was custodian of Nur's very soul and spirit. It was a great distinction. He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure. He turned back. He walked up the path. Soon the sun would be up and blazing. 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.

So runs the two final paragraphs of Anita Desai's In Custody. There are echoes of Christ's passion here; the thorns recall the crown of thorns, the outdoor setting Gethsemane, the coming crisis and funereal vision the crucifixion while the sentence "He could not deny or abandon that under any pressure" recalls Peter's denial. Is Deven some of sort sacrifice or causer of change a la Christ? How is the bestowal of the "gift of Nur's poetry" seen by Deven? How is this view of Nur's poetry and in fact this whole excerpt characteristic (or not) of Deven? Is this passage exemplary of Deven's pattern of behavior throughout the novel, or is there hope here? Will Deven finally have some "distinction", that elusive thing he has been seeking all along?

"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?

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