IN CUSTODY by Anita Desai

IN CUSTODY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Less ambitious or intense than Clear Light of Day and Fire on the Mountain, Desai's new novel is a small, faintly comic, rather cool object-lesson--about the deceptive aura of artistic genius, the hollowness of academic ambition, the pitfalls of literary hero-worship. Deven, a 35-ish teacher of Hindi at a second-rate college in the bleak town of Mirpore, sees his drab life there as ""a cruel trap""; he yearns for the artistic life in nearby Delhi, getting little joy from his bitter wife and sullen son (whose upkeep requires him to make a dull, steady living); he contributes book reviews to a Delhi journal devoted to Urdu--a Muslin/Persian language (official in Pakistan, fading in India) with a grand literary heritage--and owned by Devon's old chum Murad. So, when flamboyant, flaky Murad asks Deven to interview the great Urdu poet Nur, he's fearful, anxious. . . but can't possibly refuse. Soon, self-conscious in a hideous green nylon shirt, Devon is on the jolting bus to Delhi, unable (as ever) ""to reconcile the meanness of his physical existence with the purity and immensity of his literary yearnings."" And, after much bumbling with Murad, Devon does at last find Nut's residence, sharing one ""unblemished and immaculate"" moment when he and Nut join in reciting one of the old man's poems. On balance, however, the visit is a nightmarish failure: Devon is shocked to find the great spiritual poet living in seedy chaos, with feuding wives and raunchy acolytes; he comes away with much disillusionment but no interview. Subsequent visits, too, bring only frustration, embarrassment, money wrangles--as Devon's attempts to tape-record Nut's memoirs (with college funding) turn into a festival of greed, ineptitude, and envy. (""In taking Nur's art into his hands, did he have to gather up the stained, soiled, discoloured and odorous rags of his life as well?"") So Doyen ends up defeated in his attempt at vicarious literary glory, finding new worth in his ""empty and hopeless, safe and endurable"" Mirpore life--though he does resolve to continue the burden and honor of serving the impossible Nur: ""If he was to be custodian of Nut's genius, then Nut would become his custodian and place him in custody too."" Doyen himself is a fairly trying hero, a bit too foolish to sustain interest; and readers unfamiliar with the Hindi/Urdu culture-clash are likely to miss many of Desai's nuances. But, somewhat reminiscent of such ironic literary--life studies as Maugham's Cakes and Ale, this is a wry, rueful entertainment, gently poised between pathos and satire.

Pub Date: Feb. 27th, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row