on 16 February 2001
I read this book maybe 15 years ago, and laughed from start to finish as the disillusioned lecturer discovers the flaws of his lifetime hero, and battles with the frustrations of married life, an unsatisfactory job and the general hassles of everyday life in India. Re-reading it at 40, in an unsatisfactory job, living and working in a poor and stressful area of London, it seemed a lot less satirical, and rather more painful read, but still very funny. And it made me change jobs!
on 25 November 2003
Touching and wonderfully funny. "In Custody" is woven around the yearnings and calamities of Deven, a small-town scholar from Mirpore in the north of India. An improvised college lecturer, Deven sees a way to escape from the meanness of his daily life when he is asked to interview India's greatest Urdu poet, Nur. But every attempt will only end up in desaster.
A beautiful book, mingling melancholy, disappointment and lots of humour. I recommend it most warmly.
on 11 August 2009
I was travelling in a country where nobody spoke English so I took a few books out of the college library. This was one if them. Good points, mercifully brief and very well written. It paints a "true" image of India with all its decay and poverty. Bad points, it is thououghly depressing and makes you feel sorry for the writer. I was reading the last chapter, page, paragraph and even sentence looking for a happy ending and it did not come in the way I thought it would. I guess this is what life is all about though
on 29 July 2008
This novel was written in 1984. It is long before the emerging power of India today in the field of software and computer technology. It is centered on one junior lecturer in Hindi literature in a provincial college, the archetype of failed ambition and thwarted interests, a typical prisoner of a situation that does not and cannot provide him with the future he wants but also of his own lack of technical, economic and moral qualifications to confront the real world. A novel about frustration. Deven is a frustrated Urdu poet, Urdu intellectual, husband and father who married the wife that was arranged and chosen by his family, Hindi lecturer because he does not really like Hindi literature and does it only for survival, adventurer who accepts to do something he had dreamed of for years but without understanding the obstacles he will have to negotiate. So he ends up completely at the mercy of others, subservient to others, the perfect victimized prey of all kinds of incompetent publisher, editor, high-tech dealer and technicians, a poet and his wives, a brothel Madame and her bouncer, etc. Even and especially his supposed friends. In other words he is in custody, i.e. in jail. But there is something worse in this situation. Deven is unable to set limits to other people and hence to protect himself because he feels in charge of taking in custody what they represent. That is particularly true of the poet Nur. He becomes then the custodian of the poet, of his poetry and he does not realize that this positive side of the relation not only gives him a responsibility to take care of this poetry that is entrusted to him, but also makes him the exploited slave of the poet himself. By taking the poet's poetry in custody, becoming the poet's custodian he is at the same time taken in custody, i.e. jailed, trapped by the poet and his wives, the dealer and his helpers, the publisher and editor, even his own wife and son. This double-entendre of custody is nothing but the tip of the iceberg. Deep under, another duality is galloping with rage, the heritage from Indian history with the two colonizations of the recent centuries: the Mughal empire and then the British empire. This is represented in the division of Indian society between the Moslem and Hindi communities. The former smaller but more enterprising in commerce and business, particularly wide open to the Moslem world, the Middle East and the Arab world. The latter more closed onto itself as a full entity that has the tendency to reject others, hence to become jingoistic. Each community is built around its praying place, a Mosque or a Temple. We discover, in a vaguely specified background, the British created the problem because the resistance from the Moslem community was repressed by them, encouraging the jingoism of the other community. They sowed the very seed that was going to destroy them: the hostility between the two communities, religions, cultures, and even languages, Urdu versus Hindi. They played against the Moslem because they were the masters when they arrived, because they were slightly afraid of them since they were a lot more organized, unified and politicized than the Hindi community. They organized a historical backlash against them by repressing the 1857-58 mutiny and taking over the whole country. The book actually centers on Urdu, Urdu poetry and an old dying Urdu poet. Urdu and Hindi are two branches of exactly the same Indo-Aryan language, Hindustani. Hence they come from the same melting pot that was the Iranian plateau and Indo-Iranian languages that gave the two branches of Indo-Aryan languages in the east and Indo-European languages in the west. Urdu was re-persianized through Islam with an important Arabic and Turkish influence and is written from right to left. Hindi kept its Sanskrit origins and was not influenced by Islam and is written from left to right. This writing specificity shows the opposition between the two dialects of the same language resulting from history. Urdu poetry is the direct heir of Mughal culture and is thus pushed aside by Hindi literature. The book makes us feel the opposition between these two worlds, cultures, visions of life from beginning to end. The Urdu poet often expresses the Islamic vision of life, a place where you must suffer to atone for your sins. The Hindi philosophy is also expressed with a strong stress on the good things you must do in your life for your merit to be as high as possible when death and rebirth come by. This leads to two attitudes towards the world and other people. On one side a dominant and exploitative attitude. On the other side a contemplative and submissive attitude. The two are perfectly represented in Murad, the editor, and Nur, the poet, both Moslem on one side, and Deven on the other side. The way people speak to and address one another shows the difference in communities: you address a Moslem as Sahib and a Hindi as Bhai. At times the Moslems seem to have the tendency to call everyone Sahib, but that is marginal in the book. When the author herself speaks of someone by name he is granted the term Mister. In spite of a deep consciousness of women's predicament in this society, with polygamy on the Moslem side and monogamy on the Hindi side, both submissive for the woman or women, the only woman who expresses this predicament directly is the poet's second wife, an ex-prostitute who is absolutely obsessional and excessive out of frustration and over-compensation leaning towards tyrannical domination. A quarter of a century later things the various communities of a multi-cultural society like India still have great difficulties living together and reaching a consensus of tolerance within accepted and acknowledged differences.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris Dauphine, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne & University Versailles Saint Quentin en Yvelines