Male and Female Characters in Anita Desai's In Custody

Shoshana M. Landow '91 (Anthropology 302, Princeton University, 1989)

Like Fernando's Three Women, Anita Desai's In Custody criticizes traditional society, but her novel focuses on a pathetic, trapped male character whose wife despises his inability to succeed financially. A terrified, insignificant person, Deven moves from mediocrity as a college lecturer to impending professional and financial ruin as he incurs increasing monetary debts, which he finally decides to endure rather than committing suicide. His wife gives him little support -- in fact, the women in the book seem rather nasty, especially the enraged young wife of Deven's hero, the poet Nur. As the story progresses, however, Desai makes clear that just as the male characters are trapped in a world that offers no possibility for success, the female characters have even more right to feel frustrated with a sexist society that reduces them to clinging to these men who cannot provide them with what they want.

Unlike the evil Kunthi from Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve, Desai's characters seem justified when they act out of self-preservation. Furthermore, unlike Markandaya's Rukmani and Ira who appear justified for their rebellion yet suffer punishment anyway, Fernando and Desai's women successfully defy traditional mores. The Urdu poet's young wife in Desai's In Custody, who rages at her limitations and writes in her own defense, stands out as the most outrageous of these woman. In fact, she radically redefines her experience by insisting on telling her story. This character's self-justification has continued in recent years as women writers tell their own stories and that of other women. When women make the lives of real women the center of their books, they go beyond creating sympathetic female characters to making claims for an alternative reality, an alternative truth. The illicit, self-interested qualities so condemned in earlier fiction become liberating, positive, and creative forces.

Desai shocks us near the end of her novel when she presents Nur's young wife's point of view in a letter to Deven, in which the woman claims that Nur married her because of her "gifts and abilities," not because of sexual entrapment as had been assumed throughout the novel. She challenges him to read her enclosed Urdu poems:

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. . . . Are you not guilty of assuming that because you are a male, you have a right to brains, talent, reputation, and achievement, while I, because because I was born a 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? [196]

Deven's timidity prevents her defiant letter from gaining her acceptance in the world of Urdu poetry. Frightened of having to "enter that world on a mission of mercy or rescue," he tears up her poems. But her angry statements make the reader reevaluate what they previously had only seen through the eyes of a male character. By making women's frustration understandable, Desai subverts her book's primarily unsympathetic portrayals of women which turn out to have been Deven's -- not the author's -- perceptions.

But in fact, Desai does more than simply subvert a male society's attitude towards women, since she portrays a flawed Sita-like image in her main male character, not her female ones, who are too disillusioned and angry to want to fulfill self-sacrificing ideals. First of all, Deven suffers bitterly throughout In Custody because he has too weak a character and personality to refuse the burdens others place upon him. Second, whereas Nur's wife gains respect as a character by asserting her rights and abilities, Deven never manages such fiery rebellion. In contrast, he becomes noble at the end of the book by taking upon himself tremendous responsibilities: "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." Only as Deven decides to accept and endure whatever disasters befall him does he reach a kind of graceful inner strength: "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" [196].

[This contribution derives from work written for Professor Ranjini Obeysekere's Anthropology 302, South Asian Women Writers: Another Approach to Feminism, Princeton University, 1989/]

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