Review of Anita Desai’s ‘In Custody’ a.ka. ‘Muhafiz’!

Anita Desai is an old school writer – words are deployed with skill to convey meaning and unravel the layers of human psyche. Many tags can be applied to her writings – postcolonial, feminist, Indo-Anglian, psychic and a unique blend of ‘East- meets-West’. She has mastered the art of delving into the hearts and minds of her lead characters and effectively and efficiently portraying the angst that drives their inner life.

Image Courtesy – Wikipedia

The story traces the decline of Urdu poetry as it delves into the tragic lives of the poet Nur (Shashi Kapoor) and his disciple Deven (Om Puri). The movie poster well depicts the nature of the relationship – it has Deven listen to ‘His-Master’s-Voice’ as Shashi renders his poetry. For once the men occupy the foreground and the women characters recede into the shadows. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984.

The story is not meant for the ‘faint-hearted’ or for those who prefer the candy-floss version of life where it all sums up nicely into a ‘happily-ever-after’. In fact the movie sugar-coated the climax possibly to widen the acceptance of the story but the writer didn’t pull any punches while depicting the sordid lives and times of its leading characters.

The physical surroundings indicate decay and decrepitude – just a reflection of the inner lives of Nur and Deven. Deven is a self-effacing temporary professor of Hindi in a privately run college who is scarcely able to provide for his wife and son. Yet he harbours a strange desire to further the cause of Urdu and achieve some form of fame as a writer. Opportunity seems to come knocking when a chance encounter with his publisher-friend, Murad, sets them on the adventure of interviewing the living legend of Urdu poetry – Nur Shahjehanabadi.

Deven’s introduction to Nur is a tragi-comic scene as Nur regards him to be an imbecile and yet Deven witnesses Nur’s feet of clay. A debauched Nur lies in his own vomit and is berated to be living failure by his younger Begum. (Shabana Azmi). Shashi Kapoor essayed the role of a corpulent and fading Nur with brilliance and won a Special Jury National Award for his performance. The two form a strange relationship having learnt the worst about each other and the doomed relationship blossoms and leads to their mutual destruction.

Anita Desai’s version of feminism would definitely not be a popular one though it seems to be rooted so well in our culture. She sees ‘power-play’ that is beyond the realms of gender – it derives strength from tradition and authority. Deven is a hapless professor who commands no value or respect in the eyes of the students or his colleagues. Yet he exerts a subtle domination of his wife as would behove a traditional marriage in the  middle class. His wife, Sarla, is not well-educated and understands well the nature of her marriage. And she has her own little ways to portray her point-of-view and derive some satisfaction in her life.

The writer peppers us with some fine 1-liners that give a great insight into the human mind. ‘The meek are not always mild.’, ‘But this was too categorical for Deven who always sheltered in ambiguity.’  A troubled Deven wished to embrace his wife but desisted since the move would have permanently undermined his position of power over her, a position that was as important to her as to him: if she ceased to believe in it, what would there be for her to do, where would she go?” 

On a similar note Deven refuses to acknowledge that the younger Imtiaz Begum could be poetess in her own right. She confronts him towards the end and makes some remarkable comments on the entire episode of getting Nur to record his poetry on tape for posterity. Undoubtedly Deven is far from the modern ideal of a metrosexual. But he is truer reflection of society and his circumstances – he would have been artificial and unreal in a softer version of himself. So Anita Desai does doff her hat to patriarchy and authoritarianism when a powerless Deven still regards that its is natural for Sarla and Imtiaz Begum to defer to the men in their lives.

If that sounds bad enough then one just needs to compare it with the treatment in the movie. Sarla’s character is reduced to one of a nagging wife and Imtiaz Begum is clearly a ‘gold-digger ‘ – she recites a nazm by Nur and passes it off as her own and the entire episode of her confronting Deven has been omitted. Instead, unlike in the original novel, Deven receives a nice set of new shayari written by Nur that would get published and bring ‘name-and-fame’ to him as the custodian. (मुहाफिज़). Given that the screenplay is by Anita Desai its seems remarkably pragmatic that compromises were made in the script to enhance popular appeal while the essence of the story – the decay of Urdu, Nur and Deven are fairly depicted.

While the movie had a convenient happy ending, the novel left Deven in a state of financial mess and with the failure to record Nur’s nazms for posterity. And yet Deven finds hope to battle on for his future. He now seeks a return to normalcy. ‘He hoped his former life of non-events, non-happenings would be resumed, empty and hopeless, safe and endurable. That was the only life he was made for, although life was not perhaps the right term. He needed one that was more grey, more neutral, more shadowy. He sifted through alternatives like torn pieces of grey paper, letting them fall to the floor of his mind with a whisper and hurry him to sleep.’

The tale underlines that decay of Urdu language – the novel has couplets quoted in English translation that fail to convey the magical essence of the original. Wonder if it would have been too experimental to have retained them in their original form? The ‘Ganga-Jamuni’ tehzeeb has indeed lost its primal glory but as happens so often in India it’s expected to survive and muddle along for the present.  (Quite true since the novel was written in 1984, made into a movie in 1994 and even now in 2017 we find Urdu’s struggle is on to remain relevant and alive).


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