Isolation in In Custody

Phoebe Koch, English 27, Brown University, 1997

In Custody's Deven finds poetry compelling precisely because it serves to remove him from reality and, by association, from the people around him. Deven sees as "the glory of poets" their ability to "distance events and emotions, place them where perspective made it possible to view things clearly and calmly" (54). Thus his constant attempts, both conscious and unconscious, to distance himself from the world around him are embodied in his perception of the poet. Indeed, "he loved poetry not because it made things immediate but because it removed them to a position where they became bearable" (54). Following a disastrous scene in which Deven defiles what was most likely Nur's poetry, using it to clean vomit from the floor before discarding it in the gutter, he questions his actions. How could he have committed such an atrocity; did he not, after all, "[love] poetry above any reality?" (64)

The harsh reality from which poetry provides Deven with an escape includes his wife and child.

Sprawled upon the broken cane chair in the veranda, he listened to Sarla moving about the house inside, and watched his son playing on the steps. They were busy, he idle. They were alive, he in a limbo. (69)

Unable to join his wife and son in the real world, Deven remains an outsider in his own family. He cannot cross the divide which has come between them. At the opening of the final chapter in In Custody, Deven regards his wife with empathy, as he "stood watching her crawl about the floor, sweeping dust into little hills before her." Regarding her as she worked underneath him,

He found he was no longer irritated by the sight of her labour, or disgusted by the shabbiness of her limp, worn clothes, or her hunched, twisted posture, her untidy hair or sullen expression. It was all part of his own humiliation. He considered touching her, putting an arm around her stooped shoulders and drawing her to him. How else could he tell her he shared all her disappointment and woe? (194)

Deven cannot make that move, however. Despite his connection with Sarla, in the form of shared humiliation, he remains unable to take the final step toward human connection. To do so "would have permanently undermined his position of power over her... such desolation could not be admitted" (194). Deven's mixed feelings of "egotism, sympathy, and frustrated desire to communicate with his wife," insure that he remains isolated within his own miserable world. Deven understands that like Sarla,

he had been defeated too; like her, he was a victim. Although each understood the secret truth about the other, it did not bring about any closeness of spirit, any comradeship, because they also sensed that two victims ought to avoid each other, not yoke together their joint disappointments. A victim does not look for help from another victim; he looks for a redeemer.(68)

Deven is indeed "in a limbo," craving human compassion but afraid to initiate it -- Unable to face reality, or to achieve his impossible dream world. Like Omar Khayyam Shakil in Rushdie's Shame, Deven separates himself from his family. The emotional distance he fosters between himself and his wife and son parallels the physical distance between Omar and his three mothers. Rushdie's description of Omar as "sometimes plagued by that improbable vertigo, by the sense of being a creature of the edge: a peripheral man" (18) could also describe Deven. He, too, operates on the margins of society, isolated from friends, family, and colleagues.

Towards the end of In Custody, Deven sits on a park bench and has a revelation which embodies his warped perception of the world.

Putting his head back, he found he could see the dome and the eastern wall of the mosque. The sun was behind it, in a great brassy conflagration, dazzling his eyes, but its forms and lines stood out against the heat and light clearly. The white and black marble facing of the eastern doorway made a graceful calligraphic pattern. The enormous arched doorway soared upwards to the dome which rose like a vast bubble that the flat earth had sent out into the dusty yellow-grey sky, a silent exhaltation of stone. It was absolutely still, very serene. It was in fact the silent answer to his questioning. Since it was silent, he could not hear it, but he felt it impress its shape upon his eyelids, very gently, very lightly, like fingertips pressing them down to sleep. Gradually the sky disappeared, the sun and the light and the glare, and the shape became clearer and sharper till it was all there was-- cool, high-minded and remote. (192)

In this scene, Deven appears distanced from the rest of society, unbothered by the "city crowds" which normally inhabit the spot. For a quick moment Deven gratefully receives a respite from reality. He becomes heedless to everything outside of this geometrical world, "oblivious of the children who were climbing on to the back of the bench and leaping down from it with howls and shrieks or of the women who moved about in twittering bunches under their black and brown and white veils" (192). The answer to his questioning, then, comes in the form of unrealistic separation from the rest of the world and its inhabitants. Unfortunately, Deven's dream world, contained within "perfect, unblemished shapes," can never be truly realized. For soon, "the bubble would be breached and burst, and it would no longer be perfect. And if it were not perfect, and constant, then it would have all been for nothing, it would be nothing" (192). Deven's dream world is one in which he would live "entirely alone, in divine isolation" (51), much like he imagined Nur before their initial meeting.

Overview In Custody Remains of the Day Once Were

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002