Failed Premise Shifts: Deven's Failure to Change in In Custody

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

Compared to Once Were Warriors, In Custody is less a thesis novel, less literally preachy, less obviously a tale of shifting premises. I argue, in fact, that In Custody is not at all a novel about shifting premises, but more like a novel about the failure to shift premises. Throughout the text, Deven remains utterly unable to transform his position, location, and language into premises for hope or invention. But before I continue, let me take a step backwards, and more directly address the basic narrative premises of the novel. Our protagonist, Deven, lives in Mirpore, a desolate, dreadful, dull town outside Delhi with no convincing reason for its existence (22). He has marvelled at the beauty of Urdu -- and particularly the verse of Nur -- since his childhood, and still daydreams of someday making his mark on the world of Urdu poetry and scholarship. But Hindi dominates in independent India, and so Deven toils unhappily as a Hindi instructor at a backwater Mirpore university. Again, here as in Once Were Warriors, Deven's mental predicament relates closely to the geography of his life. He cannot really believe in or even successfully imagine real change, partly because he lives in a town where every seemingly stable structure exists in an eternal cycle of detsruction and rebuilding, and despite this, where every structure meanages to simply persist in some form or another, performing the same functions in the same locations throught the ages (20). The novel more directly expresses this relation gets when, on the way to his first interview with Nur, Deven wonders "how, out of such base material, was he to wrest a meeting with a great poet" (28). I find myself tempted to stop there -- that question seems to capture in its essence the entire issue of premises and In Custody.

Basically, we can read In Custody as a narrative of failed premise shifts. As an initial failure, consider the first real event of the novel-- Murad's proposal that Deven interview the fabled Nur for a special poetry issue of his Urdu-language journal. The proposal causes Deven simultaneous excitement and fright, as he seems to realize that it will either end in grand triumph and a new life, or in desperate failure and a new low. Uneasily anticipating the interview, Deven recalls

nightmares in which he struggled towards an unspecified destination but was repeatedly waylaid and deflected, never in any stretch of sleep arriving at it any more than he did in waking. His feet seemed to be enmeshed in the sticky net of nightmare that would not let him escape at any level of consciousness. (31)

Essentially, this nightmare becomes repeatedly symbolically enacted throughout the novel. Attempts to struggle towards something new always get delayed or denied, and Deven constantly finds his position both unbearable and impossible to leave. Even advances provide difficulties-- after meeting and befriending Nur, Deven is immediately aware "that this moment that contained such perfection of feeling, unblemished and immaculate, could not last, must break and disperse" (45). This sense of despair pervades the novel-- moments of triumph are fleeting, premises do not shift, entrapment always returns, each time stronger than before.

Immaculate perfection again proves evanescent after Deven strikes an emotional bond with his son. Immediately following a particularly disastrous encounter with Nur, Deven comes home to a surly wife and disinterested child. In desperate agony, he coaxes his son to take a walk with him. The excursion proceeds surprisingly well-- father and son warm to each other and chatter happily, finally feeling satisfied:

For once he did not resent his Œcircumstances.'Their meanness was transformed for him by his new experience and the still raw wounds it had left. Also by the feel of his son's thumb enclosed within his fistŠas if it were invigorating. (71)

Finally, a transformation! Deven has changed his circumstances, built a relationship which can serve as the premise for a new life! Or so it seems. Instead, after Deven returns from the walk, Sarla confronts him with a postcard from Nur, and "the careful brown paper parcel that Deven had been making of the evening and tying up with care, came apart" (74). The fatherly bond which held such promise is never again renewed, and Deven instantly slips back into his old cycle. Potential premises evaporate as quickly as they appear.

The tape-recording incident provides a final example of Deven's repeated failures to create premises for change. With the efforts of Murad, Siddiqui, and Nur's first wife, Deven obtains the equipment and space necessary to create an audiorecording of Nur's poetry and reflections. Deven, who finds the prospect highly exciting, credits Nur for causing a rush that sweeps over his body and disturbs the "hitherto entirely static and stagnant backwaters of his existence" (104). Once again, the premises of Deven's life seem to be shifting. But once again, Deven fails to build premises for success and happiness. The tape-recording project ends in disaster for various reasons, but at the root of the problem lies Deven's guiding desire to separate Nur's bawdy lifestyle from his sacred art. Controlled by this desire, Deven attempts to record only the words of Nur which have artistic value, keeping the historical record unblemsihed and free of Nur's humdrum and offensive ramblings. The resulting need to constantly start and stop the tape recording (and the incompetence of Deven's assistant) dooms the project to failure. Eventually, even Deven himself realizes what ought to have been obvious from the beginning: Nur's rambling stories about youth and love and wrestling did in fact have something to do with his verse, and the matter of separating "prose from poetry, life from art" is not so simple after all (155).

The failure of this desire for pure moments and clean separations returns me to an argument I have made elsewhere that postcolonial writers refuse to wipe the slate clean. In a way, we can consider the following as one of the lessons of In Custody: it's all dirty, so get on with it. The forces of messiness, history, and persistence: could have provided Deven with premises for change, with ways of understanding Nur, his son, the tape-recording project. But Deven's obsessive desire for intellectual neatness and immaculate perfection (from Nur, from his son, from the recording) lead to failure. They lead to failure because they amount to denials of premises instead of shifts in them.

Main Overview India Overview Anita Desai In Custody

Last Modified: 15 March, 2002