In Custody – Book Review

One of the advantages of being married to a librarian is that every now and then he brings home books that the library no longer wants and we might not have otherwise picked up to read. This is how we came into possession of In Custody by Anita Desai.

The simple take away from the book, for me, was that when you have a boring, predictable life- be careful what you wish for. You may soon be wishing for that simple life back.

The book follows the life of Deven, who is a professor of Hindi while his true love is Urdu, specifically Urdu poetry. He has the opportunity to interview, who he thinks is the greatest living Urdu poet, Nur, and the journey that this initial opportunity leads him on is nothing that he expected it would be. His idolization of Nur is called to question when he sees the reality of Nur, the human being. Despite many signs that he should abandon the project, Deven forges ahead and risks his marriage, savings and reputation. He is so desperate to have the life of glory and renowned that he once thought inevitable for himself that he is blind to the impossibility of the task before him.  In the end, it seems all is lost but Deven still rationalizes his choices and feels, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that he has come out ahead.

I struggled through parts of the book that I thought were slow and it was frustrating to watch Deven make bad choice after bad choice, not seeming to be aware of his own agency in his misery. Despite its weaknesses, the book successfully captures universal themes of aspiration, disappointment and myth-making. It can offer great perspective to the careful reader.


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