My Mirror column:
At 25, Ismail Merchant's In Custody (Muhafiz) remains a striking vision of poetry amidst pettiness, as well as a memorable tale about Urdu and Hindi.
In 1984, Anita Desai was nominated for the Booker Prize for a novel called In Custody. It was a marvellous book about a shaggy old poet called Nur, whose last days we observe through the eyes of a college lecturer called Deven. Desai wrote her story in crystalline English, but the world she captured was that of the death throes of Urdu – as witnessed by a teacher of Hindi.
A decade later, the novel was made into a film by Ismail Merchant, starring Om Puri as the nervous, embattled Deven, and Shashi Kapoor – who had been a Merchant Ivory favourite from The Householder (1963) through Shakespearewallah, Bombay Talkie and Heat and Dust (1983) – as the teetering but still somehow charismatic Nur.
Interestingly, Desai agreed to adapt her book for the screen, collaborating with Shahrukh Husain, to whom we owe the fluid Urdu/Hindustani/Hindi in which Desai's imagined universe is translated back to life. Desai, the daughter of a German mother and a Bengali father who had been to school and college in Delhi, had set her novel between the hubbub of Old Delhi and the dusty provincialism of the fictional Mirpore, a trading town not far from Delhi. The film kept the poet's locational moniker “Nur Shahjehanabadi”, but transposed him (and the hole-in-the-wall magazine office run by Deven's friend Murad, which is angling for an interview with him) from the gullies of Shahjahanbad to Bhopal.
It was probably a practical decision, and certainly a more visually pleasing one. The circuitous route to Nur's house no longer went past “the reeking heart of the bazaar”, “evil-smelling shops” or the “lane lined with nothing but gutters”, but into a picturesque part of Bhopal. And the cinematic version of the haveli has a certain charm, despite the dysfunctional lives lived in it. The downstairs is presided over by the poet’s first wife, the perfect Sushma Seth, who spends her days supervising the fine chopping of onions and the utaaroing of nazar, while the upstairs is the preserve of the younger second wife, the complex, high-strung aspiring poetess Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi).
Deven arrives with a very different vision of the life poetic than the one he finds being led by Nur. The film distils Desai's sharp-edged observations into something quite brilliant. An admirer of Nur's verse, Deven initially sees the great poet as trapped: when he seeks to escape the petty domestic squabbles of his household, his escape is limited to a circle of lowbrow sycophants. The delicacy of Nur's poetic imagination, it seems to Deven, cannot be nurtured by the coarseness that surrounds him. There is clearly an echo of recognition here – Deven, too, has aspirations to poetry, which he still writes – in Urdu. He feels defeated by having been tied to the mundane: the teaching job – in Hindi – that pays his bills but forces him to suffer the sly, mocking glances of students for whom romance tends more to dark glasses and motorbikes than literature; the harried, put-upon wife who does not understand poetry or the desire for it; the little son whose abilities seem too ordinary and unliterary to attract Deven's attention.
But Desai is not so one-sided as to allow even her favoured protagonists to get away with such easy self-delusion. The film incorporates these layers beautifully into the performances. We watch Deven's petulant, unnecessarily bossy behaviour with his wife Sarla (a superb Neena Gupta, who responds with the perfect balance between silent reproach and jaded complaints). We observe Nur’s own flaws: his indiscipline, his indulgence of the senses, his addiction to the excesses of alcohol and rich Mughlai cooking and late hours kept in the company of flatterers whose crude verse is so obviously no match for the quality of his. If coarseness there is, it is as much of Nur's making. And if the women are insecure, jealous, petty even when they have some ambition, In Custody is astute enough to show us that they cannot really be blamed: the limits of their imaginations are the limits of what their civilisation has allowed them.
The book went into much greater detail about the politics of Hindi and Urdu, with the poet often mocking Deven's employment in a Hindi department: “Forgotten your Urdu? Forgotten my verse? Perhaps it is better if you go back to your college and teach your students the stories of Prem Chand, the poems of Pant and Nirala. Safe, simple Hindi language, safe comfortable ideas of cow worship and caste and the romance of Krishna,” he derides Deven, in a line that seems bizarrely blind now. There are complaints about the Congress having placed Hindi and the Hindiwallahs atop the literary establishment, while Urdu is imprisoned in “those cemeteries they call universities”. Thirty-five, even 25 years ago, the fictional Nur and his bazaar hangers-on – largely Muslim, young, unsophisticated of taste and insecure of income – could still mock a Hindu lecturer of Hindi who had come to pay his respects to Urdu. If Nur stood for the decrepitude and self-delusion of Urdu, Hindi was represented by the innocuous wannabe poet Deven. That equation has changed, perhaps forever.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 Apr 2019.