The Communalization and Disintegration of Urdu in Anita Desai's In Custody

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Author: Amina Yaqin
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,326 words

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[(essay date February 2002) In this essay, first presented as a paper in February 2002, Yaqin provides a history of Urdu in India, questioning the validity of Desai's nostalgic outlook on the language in her novel In Custody.]


The question of Urdu in India is an extremely layered one which needs to be examined historically, politically and ideologically in order to grasp the various forces which have shaped its current perception as a sectarian language adopted by Indian Muslims, marking their separation from the national collectivity.1 In this article I wish to explore those themes through the lens of literature, specifically an Indian-English novel about Urdu, Anita Desai's In Custody. Writing in the early 1990s, Aijaz Ahmad was of the opinion that the teaching of English literature has created a body of English-speaking Indians who represent "the only overarching national community with a common language," able to imagine themselves across the disparate nation as a "national literary intelligentsia" with "a shared body of knowledge, shared presumptions and a shared knowledge of mutual exchange."2 Arguably, both Desai and Ahmad belong to this "intelligentsia" through the postcolonial secular English connection but equally they are implicated in the discursive structures of cultural hegemony in civil society.3 However, it is not my intention here to re-inscribe an authentic myth of origin about Indianness through linguistic associations, but to assess the significance of Anita Desai's intervention in a communally charged Hindi-Urdu debate.

The key concerns I have in this essay are about the kind of cultural memory Desai presents in her novel, and how this depiction can be read in relation to the actual machinations of Indian politics with regard to the language question. As a successful author, writing for an international publishing market, she is invested with a certain power to represent an 'authentic' India. While she is not a writer who bombards us with an epic-style narrative, purporting to offer 'the great Indian novel', her exploration of individual identities and self-formations work in a subtle and problematic way, creating instead miniatures, and guiding the reader's responses through a combination of omniscience, internal focalization, indirect speech and symbolic tropes.

In Custody, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984, can retrospectively be read as a literary account of the communalization and disintegration of Urdu in post-Partition India. The year in which it was published was, coincidentally, the year that saw the death of an Urdu literary legend, the master lyricist Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who stirred the hearts of millions with his haunting melodies and sustained hope for many with his romantic vision of a return to a beloved homeland. Radiating optimism, his poetry revived disheartened nationalists with its belief in a destination which had not yet been realized, a desire for which marked even his most pessimistic poem, "Subh-e azadi: August 1947 (Freedom's Dawn)," with its important ideological rejection of the "pock-marked dawn" of freedom from colonial rule:

The time for the liberation of heart and mind Has not come as...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100090473