The Communalization and Disintegration of Urdu in Anita Desai’s In Custody 1
T 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. In this article I wish to explore these themes through the lens of literature, specifically an Indian English novel about Urdu entitled In Custody by Anita Desai. Writing in the early s, 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 (Viswanathan , –; Rajan , –). However, it is not my intention to re-inscribe an authentic myth of origin about Indianness through linguistic associations, An earlier version of this essay was first presented as a paper at the Minorities, Education and Language in st Century Indian Democracy—The Case of Urdu with Special Reference to Dr. Zakir Husain, Late President of India Conference held in Delhi, February . 2 See also chapter “‘Indian Literature’: Notes Toward the Definition of a Category,” in the same work, –. 1
A Y • but to critically assess the value of Anita Desai’s intervention in a communally charged Hindi-Urdu debate. The key questions I raise in this essay are about the kind of cultural memory Desai is constructing in her text, 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 imaginatively represent an “authentic” India. While she is not a writer who bombards us with an epic style narration, purporting to offer “the great Indian novel,” her exploration of individual identities and selfformations 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, short-listed for the Booker Prize in , can retrospectively be read as a literary narration of the communalization and disintegration of Urdu in post-Partition India. The year in which it was published was coincidentally the same year that saw the death of an Urdu literary legend, the master lyricist Fai¤ A√mad Fai¤ 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. Symbolizing optimism, his poetry revived disheartened nationalists with its belief in a destination which had as yet not been realized, a desire that marked even his most pessimistic poem “¿ub√-e ¥z≥dµ: August ” (“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 yet Continue your arduous journey This is not your destination (In Hasan , )
It is interesting that Fai¤, stylistically wedded to the traditional form of the ghazal, was concerned with forging themes of modernity in his poetic message, constructing a new direction for his Urdu listeners and readers, while Desai, working with a modernist narrative, takes it back toward a sensibility rooted in tradition and...
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See Certeau (), where, in chapter , he discusses the dominance of a centralized culture which imposes itself as a singularity and expects celebration of “culture in the singular” in the twentieth century.
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