Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Reflections: In Custody

Deven is a timid and oppressed Hindi professor in a town near Delhi. His profession is a drudgery he has to put up with for the sake of a livelihood that barely meets his family’s needs. His hobby, his passion, is Urdu and Urdu poetry. But when India fragmented during its Independence, the birth of Pakistan also meant the loss and steady whittling of Urdu within India. Hindi elevated to be the National Language, the language of Hindustan. Many Indian scholars continue to lament on the neglect of a language so historic and beautiful as Urdu. So when Deven is approached by his sly friend Murad to interview Nur, a rare Indian legend of Urdu poetry, he pursues the opportunity hesitantly, hoping that this precious experience would rejuvenate and give meaning to his mundane existence. But the experience proves less than rejuvenating and more aggrieving as Deven wrings himself out to record the troubled and difficult poet’s words for posterity. Anita Desai conveys the angst and longing for a bygone era through a simple story that mercilessly underlines the imperfections and frustrations that color certain sections of India.

This sounds like a depressing book, but it is actually more frustrating than depressing. All the characters are flawed or deceitful. It seems like Desai has highlighted the darker sides of her characters, each caught in their own web of frustrations and disappointments. Even physical descriptions of the characters have a bitter and unattractive edge - the women are given the appearance of old hags and witches, the men are sketched as reptiles and weasels. It’s difficult to empathise with any of the characters, except perhaps Deven, but even he exudes so much timidity and cowardice that it pains to see him bullied at every turn. Event after event weighs down Deven’s meek spirit until things just run their course. The reader closes the book with a sigh of frustration.

All that said, the story does realistically represent a slice of India. The characters are true, and very much real, flawed to such depths that their virtues remain firmly shadowed. Much credit goes to the excellent and intelligent writing that unflinchingly etches out the characters and settings with remarkable perspicuity. So many aspects of Indian society and prevalent attitudes are seamlessly layered onto the narrative. The book is not just a commentary on the eviction of a beautiful language from India, but an objective portrayal of  the corruption and dissatisfaction that took over Independent India. Taking on an idealistic tone, Deven’s passion gives him that much-needed meaning and purpose in his existence that regardless of the outcome of his pursuit, just the journey is shown to fill a void within him that was so lacking in confidence and belief. I think one needs to hang onto the romanticism lent by the arts (such as poetry) to see beauty in an otherwise gray existence. In that sense, this story can be appreciated by those of us that get carried away by the beauty of artistic expression.

The book is surely worth reading for the writing and the characterization. And on another note, I would highly recommend watching the movie adaption of it, if you are not so inclined on reading. The movie is adapted and directed beautifully. The atmosphere created through the visual medium softens the rough edges of the story and the characters, making the experience much more satisfying. With a cast of really talented actors, the movie complements and does justice to the book by showcasing the characters and the story in the best possible light. I watched the movie mid-way and it was remarkable how much it positively enhanced my reading experience. 

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