Desai's In Custody, Urdu, and the Politics of Language

George P. Landow

Anita Desai's novel emphasizes the relations of poetry in a particular language to clear matters of political power, ethnicity, religion and religious prejudice, and other problems permeating the Indian subcontinent. American readers unacquainted with India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh might find disturbing the hate and resentment that colors the discussions of the protagonist's beloved Urdu poetry.

Even as his trickster friend Murad Beg mentions "the glorious tradition of Urdu literature," he presents it, as later in the novel does the poet Nur, in terms of its opposition to

that vegetarian monster, Hindi . . . That language of peasants . . . The language that is raised on radishes and potatoes. . . . Yet, like these vegetables, it flourishes, while Urdu -- language of the court in days of royalty -- now languishes in the back lanes and gutters of the city. No palace for it to live in the style to which it is accustomed, no emperors and nawabs to act as its patrons" [15]

As the novel makes clear, literary questions of style and subject arise embedded in starkly political questions of power, and they have long histories in which religion, conquest, and oppression have their part. Urdu, Murad makes clear, is the language of the Muslim conquerors of Hindu India, who were then conquered by the English. Nur, the supposedly once great poet, asks his would-be biographer, "How can there be Urdu poetry when there is no Urdu language left? It is dead, finished. The defeat of the Moghuls by the British threw the noose over its head, and the defeat of the British by the Hindi-wallahs tightened it. So now you see its corpse here, waitingf to be buried" [42]. The omniscient narrator explains that Urdu and with it Urdu literature "had become doomed the day the Muslims departed across the newly-drawn border of the new country of Pakistan" [96].

Our protagonist Deven -- one can't call him hero -- is a would be poet and scholar of Urdu literature, which he deeply loves, but he has taken a degree in Hindi in order to survive economically, for which his idol Nur mocks him: "'Safe, simple Hindi language, safe comfortable ideas of cow worship and caste and the romance of Krishna. That is your subject, isn't it, professor?'"[55]

Placing this issue near the center of In Custody allows us to see that the concerns of the weak and ineffectual Deven relate to major issues in his society, issues that in turn help situate and define the characters. Since Desai writes in English, rather than Urdu or Hindi, her choice of language also has obvious political implications. What are they? The novel offers one possible source of renewal. What is it and why does Deven refuse to accept it?

[Numbers refer to Anita Desai, In Custody, Middlesex: King Penguin, 1985.]