In Custody | Critical Review by Bruce King

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of In Custody.
This section contains 771 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Bruce King

Critical Review by Bruce King

SOURCE: "A Chekhovian Comedy," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 93, No. 3, Summer, 1985, pp. lx-lxii.

In the review below, King offers a favorable assessment of In Custody, stating that "Desai delights us by transforming the expected into the surprising."

Anita Desai's latest novel [In Custody] explores R. K. Narayan's comic territory of well-meaning, bumbling incompetent people made more absurd when offered possibilities of change, achievement, and fame. But it is unlike a Narayan novel in that the disruption of a timeless passive India by the modern world does not conclude with humility and the acceptance of karma or fate: In Custody shows the improbability of returning to the womb of ambitionless resignation. Desai's comedy is sharper, tougher, more farcical, and less comforting than Narayan's quiet good-natured tolerance of incongruities and paradox. Instead of the intrusion's destroying itself, leaving life to go on as previously, Desai's characters remain haunted by ambitions while nostalgic for the past. They are easily if reluctantly tempted by hope; unable to act decisively, they become victims of themselves.

Since Desai is interested in the pattern of apparently random lives, her novels are posted with directions; but they are also rich in subtexts suggested by settings, history, deviations from character types, unexpected turns of the story. Although In Custody entails the comic mutual dependence that develops between a provincial college teacher and a famous aging poet, the historical relationship of language and culture to politics and society is an implied theme of the novel. The teacher is one of life's losers. A Hindu by religion, balding in his mid-thirties, lovelessly married, holding only a temporary lectureship, he is resigned to his fate of teaching Hindi instead of the Urdu language he loves. Unexpectedly he is asked to interview the greatest living Urdu poet. Hoping to gain entry into Delhi literary circles and publish his own Urdu poetry, he is soon trapped in the poet's world of extravagance, waste, cunning, and wild emotions, for which he has not the time nor money nor ability. The poet, a grotesque worthy of Gogol or the early Nabokov, no longer writes verse, but lives flamboyantly, self-destructively, irresponsibly. Urdu, the language of the rich Moghul court culture of the former Muslim rulers of North India, whose power rapidly declined after the abortive 1851 mutiny against the British, lost its social basis after Partition, when millions of Muslims fled to Pakistan. In Hindi-speaking, Hindu-ruled India, the former grandeur of late Moghul culture, with its music recitals and dancing prostitutes, has degenerated into squalid bohemianism in the noisy overcrowded slums of Old Delhi. Urdu poets now survive by writing sentimental songs that blare into the streets densely packed with cows, cars, and pedestrians.

In Custody is filled with visual imagery economically presented. The billboard advertisements for refrigerators and cars, representing what the teacher's wife desires, contrast to the dry barrenness of the provincial city where the teacher lives, just as allusions to famous Delhi monuments of Moghul history situate the poet within a society and its past. Timeless India is represented by a Hindu temple, "a bright pink and white concrete structure with a newly-painted clay idol and fluorescent tubes for light," supposedly five hundred years old. In Custody is rich with ironies, absurdities, comic eccentricities, sly social notations, and witty parallels. Although the drama of the poet's rich life contrasts with the spiritual poverty of the teacher, both characters cannot face the modern world, and both are indecisive. The teacher is burdened with an unfulfilling job, an arranged marriage, and a neglected child; the poet's most recent wife (the mother of his neglected child) is a former prostitute who dominates him and views his fame as detracting from her own pretenses of being a poet.

What may appear a nineteenth-century Chekhovian comedy of larger-than-life feelings manifested in diminutive characters is psychologically more sophisticated. Each turn of the story brings further disaster as the teacher accepts the increasingly senile poet's foolish demands for payment of his hospital bills, future funeral expenses, and the upkeep of his wife and child after his death. The teacher, however, sees all this as giving his life meaning: he is now bound to the poet. In contrast to the only Urdu teacher of his college, who sells his family property to a real-estate developer, and the other Urdu speakers who seek jobs in Beirut and Cairo, the teacher has become the custodian of what is left of the Muslim Urdu culture of India. Although seemingly a traditional novelist who works within established conventions, Desai delights us by transforming the expected into the surprising. She revitalizes, explores, uncovers this fictive world.

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This section contains 771 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Bruce King
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