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Critical Review by A. G. Mojtabai
SOURCE: "The Poet in All His Squalor," in The New York Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, p. 7.
Below, Mojtabai offers a favorable review of In Custody.
We are all authors. Adding here, deleting there, we people the world with our needs: with friends, lovers, ciphers, enemies, villains—and heroes. The trick is most evident in the case of heroes. As we glance from the great, perfected poem to the shambling, imperfect poet, we begin at once to recast what seems so unedifying to our sight. Surely, we tell ourselves, the author of a poem like this must lead a transfigured life.
Anita Desai's latest novel, In Custody, is a comedy that turns upon such an expectation. The book is set in contemporary India and centers on the world of Urdu poetry. For a number of reasons—some familiar and universal, some less familiar and native to the tradition—Persian and Urdu poets are highly susceptible to idealization. Their poetry, steeped as it is in Sufism, often has the dignity of liturgical utterance, and its ever-recurring images of sensuous love—the rose, the nightingale, the wine, the Beloved, the mole on the cheek of the Beloved—speak, in a readily decipherable code, for the contemplation of God and the ravishments of the mystical life.
Given these associations, it is entirely natural that Deven Sharma, the protagonist of the novel, should look to poetry as an escape from the sordid necessities of ordinary life. Poetry for Deven is solace and uplift. In his mind, poem and poet inhabit a transcendent, "wondrously illuminated" realm, utterly unlike his own.
Deven's life is earthbound, diminished, hopelessly compromised. Long ago, he set aside his ambition to write poetry in order to support a wife. The marriage is loveless; husband and wife rival one another in devising new ways to mutely express reproach. And there is another disappointment, more desolating than all the rest. Although Urdu is his first language and his first love, Deven is forced to make his living as a temporary lecturer in Hindi literature, a field in which he has little interest and no discernible talent.
So firm is Deven's sense of failure and entrapment that, when the door opens and he is given a nudge toward it, he stalls, unable to grasp what has happened. Asked to interview Nur Shahjehanabadi, a great, aging Urdu poet, Deven at first resists the stirrings of his long-buried dreams. But only at first—the opportunity is irresistible. Nur is the very poet whose lines Deven's father had loved to recite, and Deven "still read, ceremoniously, whenever he felt sad or nostalgic and thought of his father and his early childhood and all that he had lost."
Deven's entrance into the presence of the poet is a fine, ripe moment:
He heard an immense voice, cracked and hoarse and thorny, boom from somewhere high above their heads: "Who is it that disturbs the sleep of the aged at this hour of the afternoon that is given to rest? It can only be a great fool. Fool, are you a fool?"
And Deven, feeling some taut membrane of reservation tear apart inside him and a surging expansion of joy at hearing the voice and the words that could only belong to that superior being, the poet, sang back, "Sir, I am! I am!"
For Deven, the approach to the realm of the poet is a literal ascent, since Nur lives in the topmost room of a house that rises in tiers around an inner courtyard. Deven is filled with wonder and gratitude at being called. "He had never conceived of a summons … so leonine, splendid and commanding, a voice that could grasp him as it were, by the roots of his hair and haul him up from the level on which he existed." Deven mounts the stairs "as if sloughing off and casting away the meanness and dross" of his past. Unnoticed as he ascends are the broken bike, the dripping tap and the dusty stairs themselves.
Deven can scarcely anticipate the room that awaits him at the top—the disorder, the shabbiness, the filth. It is a scene of squalor on a grand scale, for the poet lives surrounded by squabbling wives and drunken, loud-mouthed toadies. Nur is, to be sure, in this setting, but not of it. The great poet is separated from the people around him by his intense self-absorption: he is suffering, exquisitely, from piles.
What is a believer, bent of hagiography, to do? "In taking Nur's art into his hands, did he have to gather up the stained, soiled, discoloured and odorous rags of his life as well?" Deven has little stomach for the task; his repeated impulse is simply to run. Nur senses his difficulty and, later, during one of their recording sessions (held in a brothel), finally looks Deven in the face and speaks to his unease: "Has this dilemma come to you, too, then? This sitting and selecting from the debris of our lives? It can't be done …" And then he breaks into a verse that Deven has never heard before, a poem that enters into their midst "like some visitor from another element, silencing them all with wonder."
In Custody is a deft, sometimes savage, comedy of the mutual appropriation of poet and disciple. Whatever Deven's ineptitudes, and they are formidable, he has a redeeming sincerity. He is a true disciple of art. Nur realizes this and exploits it to the full. Deven's hand may be fumbling, but it trembles with reverence.
As far as Anita Desai's hand is concerned, it seems in this, her third novel, to be unfaltering. Nur's advice notwithstanding, she is scrupulous, indeed, at sifting and selecting—then, thickening. The post-Partition India of which she writes is a palimpsest of old and new, East and West, sacred and profane. In Deven's town of Mirpore, the small local mosque, built by a refugee nawab fleeing British retaliation after the 1857 mutiny, is mottled gray from urban pollution, and "overgrown by the shacks, signboards, stalls, booths, rags, banners, debris and homeless poor of the bazaars."
If you should ask about one of the Hindu temples in town, you might be told that "a bright pink and white concrete structure with a newly-painted clay idol and fluorescent tubes for lights was five hundred years old; not strictly true, of course, but when one considered that its site might have been used for prayer that long, it was not all that false either."
Between Mirpore and Delhi, the ancient fields are dotted with billboards advertising family planning, tractors and tires. Traditional brides, looking ahead to their arranged marriages, dream of phones and Frigidaires. And old religious rivalries are played out through the channels of academic politics. At the college in which Deven teaches, the Hindi department flourished, while the one-man Urdu department barely scrapes by on receivership.
Anita Desai is a writer of Bengali-German descent, who stands in a complicated but advantageous relation to India. Insiders rarely notice this much; outsiders cannot have this case of reference. Her two previous novels, both set in India, have been praised for their fine painting of mood and place. In this latest book, although character is primary and explored with relentless scrutiny, place and atmosphere are also intensely visualized. Yet there are no decorative details here, no exotica. None of those crowd scenes, either, dear to the hearts of Westerners making films of India. This author has no need of crowds. Properly observed, a roomful of people is crowd enough, and in the right hands—as Anita Desai so amply illustrates—world enough.
This section contains 1,254 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)