Structure and Theme in Anita Desai's In Custody

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

Like many Romantic and Post-romantic works, Desai's In Custody in part derives its structure from a series of climactic and anticlimactic perfect moments, instants of vision, and epiphanies, which provide solace and meaning for Deven's life. Our problem as readers involves deciding how to take these epiphanic moments since the context in which they appear or the events that quickly follow clearly invalidate these powerful experiences or at least limit their significance. Such moments in the novel include his entrance into Nur's house, which assumes "was the summons for which he had been waiting all these empty years" (39), his encounter with the vomiting poet and his furious wife (59), and his rare play with his son Manu, during which Deven recalls -- and fantasizes -- his own father (73-74). Desai carefully presents one of these apparently climactic epiphanies at the close of the tenth chapter when Deven walks through the 114 degree heat after Murad has betrayed him yet once more by refusing to pay for the room in which Nur's interviews took place. Walking past the Red Fort and other famous sights of Delhi, he enters a small park and sits on a bench.

Putting his head back, he found he could see the dome and eastern wall of the mosque. The sun was behind it, a great brassy conflagration, dazzling his eyes, 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 exhalation 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 to sleep. Gradually the sky disappeared, the sun and light and the glare, and the shape became clearer and sharper till it was all there was -- cool, high-minded and remote. [191-192]

This passage, which may or may not be climactic, demands that we answer several questions, including:

  1. What does the paragraph immediately following, which ends Chapter 10, do to this epiphanic moment? (In other words, does it continue it or completely contradict it?)

  2. What does this experience have to do with his refusal to read the woman poet's verses and his final decision, on the novel's closing pages, to accept responsibility for Nur and his family? Does Desai present this final decision as heroic, absurd, absurdly heroic, yet another illusion, or what?