A Temporary Matter
A Temporary MatterIntroduction
"A Temporary Matter" was originally published in the New Yorker in April 1998 and is the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri's debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The collection won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a rare achievement for a short-story collection.
The story takes place over five days, beginning March 19, at the suburban Boston home of a married couple, Shoba and Shukumar. During this week, when they must cope with a one-hour power outage each evening, the grief and alienation that the two have suffered since the stillbirth of their child six months earlier builds to a climax.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England, in 1967. Her parents, natives of Bengal, India, soon moved the family to Rhode Island, where Lahiri grew up. Lahiri's father, Amar, is a librarian at the University of Rhode Island, and her mother, Tia, is a teacher's aide. From childhood, Lahiri made frequent trips to India to visit relatives.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in English literature from Barnard College, Lahiri earned master's degrees in English, creative writing, and comparative studies in literature and the arts, all from Boston University. She went on to earn a doctorate in Renaissance studies at the same university.
"A Temporary Matter" first appeared in the New Yorker in 1998 and was among Lahiri's first published stories. It is the first story in the collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999), for which Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. The collection's title story also won an O. Henry award and the PEN/Hemingway award in 1999.
Lahiri lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Guatemalan American journalist Alberto Vourvoulias, and their young son, Octavio. Her first novel, The Namesake, was published in the fall of 2003.
The story opens with Shoba, a thirty-three-year-old wife, arriving home at the end of a workday. Her husband, Shukumar, is cooking dinner. Shoba reads him a notice from the electric company stating that their electricity will be turned off from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. for five consecutive days so that a line can be repaired. The date shown on the notice for the first evening of the outage is today's date, March 19. The notice seems to have been mailed.
The narrator mentions that Shukumar has forgotten to brush his teeth that day and often does not leave the house for days at a time, although Shoba stays out more as time goes on. Then the narrator explains that six months earlier, in September, Shoba had experienced fetal death three weeks before their baby was due. Shukumar, a doctoral student, was in Baltimore for an academic conference at the time, having gone only at Shoba's insistence. Shukumar often thinks of the last time he saw Shoba pregnant, the morning he left for the conference. As he rode away in the taxi, he had imagined himself and Shoba driving in a station wagon with their children.
By the time Shukumar had gotten news of Shoba's premature labor and returned to Boston, their baby had been stillborn.
Now, Shoba leaves early each morning for her proofreading job in the city. After work, she goes to the gym. She also takes on extra projects for work that she does at home during the evenings and weekends. Shukumar stays in bed half the day. Because of the tragedy, his academic advisor has arranged for him to be spared any teaching duties for the spring semester. Shukumar is supposed to be working on his dissertation; instead, he spends most of his time reading novels and cooking dinner.
When Shukumar remarks that they will have to eat dinner in the dark because of the power outage, Shoba suggests lighting candles and goes upstairs to shower before dinner. Shukumar notes that she has left her satchel and sneakers in the kitchen and that since the stillbirth Shoba has "treated the house like a hotel." He brushes his teeth, unwrapping a new toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom. This leads him to recall that Shoba used to be prepared for any eventuality. In addition to having extra toothbrushes for last-minute guests, Shoba had stocked their pantry and freezer with homemade foods. After the stillbirth, she had stopped cooking, and Shukumar had used up all the stored food in the past months. Shukumar also notes that Shoba always keeps her bonuses in a bank account in her own name. He thinks that this is for the best, since his mother was unable to handle her financial affairs when his father died.
The narrator explains that Shoba and Shukumar have been eating dinner separately, she in front of the television set, he in front of the computer. Tonight, they will eat together because of the power outage. Shukumar lights candles, tunes the radio to a jazz station, and sets the table with their best china. Shoba comes into the kitchen as the electricity goes off and the lights go out. She says that the kitchen looks lovely and reminisces about power outages in India. She tells Shukumar that at family dinners at her grandmother's house, when the electricity went off, "we all had to say something"—a joke, a poem, an interesting fact, or some other tidbit. Shoba suggests that she and Shukumar do this, but she further suggests that they each tell the other something they have never revealed before.
Shoba begins the game, telling Shukumar that early in their relationship she peeked into his address book to see if she was in it. Shukumar reveals that on their first date he forgot to tip the waiter, so he returned to the restaurant the next day and left money for him.
The next evening, Shoba comes home earlier than usual. They eat together by candlelight again. Then, instead of each going to a different room, Shoba suggests that they sit outside, since it is warm. Shukumar knows that they will play the game again. He is afraid of what Shoba might tell him. He considers but then discounts several possibilities: that she had an affair, that she does not respect him for still being a student at thirty-five, or that she blames him for being away when she lost the baby.
Shoba tells Shukumar that she once lied to him, saying that she had to work late when actually she went out with a friend. Shukumar tells her that he cheated on an exam many years earlier. He explains that his father had died a few months before and that he was unprepared for the exam. Shoba takes his hand, and they go inside.
The next day, Shukumar thinks all day about what he will tell Shoba next. That evening, he tells her that he returned a sweater she gave him as an anniversary gift and used the money to get drunk in the middle of the day. The sweater was a gift for their third anniversary, and Shukumar was disappointed because he thought it unromantic. Shoba tells Shukumar that at a social gathering with his superiors from the university, she purposely did not tell him that he had a bit of food on his chin as he chatted with the department chairman. They then sit together on the sofa and kiss.
The fourth night, Shoba tells Shukumar that she does not like the only poem he has ever had published. He tells her that he once tore a picture of a woman out of one of her magazines and carried it with him for a week because he desired the woman. They go upstairs and make love.
The next day, Shukumar goes to the mailbox and finds a notice that the electric repairs have been completed early. Shukumar is disappointed, but when Shoba arrives home she says, "You can still light the candles if you want." They eat by candlelight, and then Shoba blows out the candles and turns on the lights. When Shukumar questions this, she tells him that she has something to tell him and wants him to see her face. His heart pounds. He thinks that she is going to tell him that she is pregnant again, and he does not want her to be. She tells him, instead, that she has signed a lease on an apartment for herself.
Shukumar realizes that this revelation has been her planned ending for the game all along. He decides to tell Shoba something he had vowed to himself that he would never tell her. Shoba does not know that Shukumar held their baby at the hospital while she slept. Shoba does not even know the baby's gender and has said that she is glad that she has no knowledge about the lost child. Shukumar tells Shoba that the baby was a boy and goes on to describe his appearance in detail, including that the baby's hands were closed into fists the way Shoba's are when she sleeps. The two sit at the table together, and each of them cries because of what the other has revealed.
Mr. and Mrs. Bradford are neighbors of Shoba and Shukumar. Shoba and Shukumar see them walking by, arm in arm, on their way to the bookstore on the second night of the power outage. The Bradfords seem to be a happily married couple and as such provide a contrast to Shoba and Shukumar. The narrator mentions that the Bradfords placed a sympathy card in Shoba and Shukumar's mailbox when they lost their baby.
Mr. and Mrs. Bradford are neighbors of Shoba and Shukumar. Shoba and Shukumar see them on the second night of the power outage, and Shukumar sees them again, through the window, on the last evening of the story. The first time the Bradfords appear, Mrs. Bradford asks Shoba and Shukumar if they would like to join her and her husband on their walk to the bookstore, but they decline.
Shoba is a thirty-three-year-old woman who is married to Shukumar. She is described as tall and broad-shouldered. She seems to have been born in the United States of immigrant parents from India, and she has spent considerable time in India visiting relatives. She and her husband now live in a house outside Boston.
Shoba works in the city as a proofreader and also takes on extra projects to do at home. She works out at a gym regularly.
Six months before the time of the story, Shoba's first child was stillborn. This tragedy has changed her habits and her relationship with her husband. While she was formerly a neat and enthusiastic housekeeper and cook, she has become careless about the house and has stopped cooking. The narrator remarks that she previously had the habit of being prepared for anything, from keeping extra toothbrushes on hand for last-minute guests to stocking the freezer and pantry with homemade Indian delicacies.
Shukumar is a thirty-five-year-old doctoral student who is married to Shoba. He is a tall man with a large build. He, too, seems to be an American-born child of Indian immigrants, but he has spent less time in India than Shoba has.
Because of the loss of his child six months earlier, Shukumar has been given a semester away from his teaching duties. He is supposed to use the time to focus on writing his dissertation on agrarian revolts in India. However, Shukumar accomplishes little. He stays in bed until midday, doesn't leave the house for days at a time, and often forgets to brush his teeth. He has spent the past months preparing dinners for himself and Shoba using the foods she has stored in the freezer and pantry.
The story takes place six months after the stillbirth of Shoba and Shukumar's first child, and the two are still overwhelmed by grief. Shukumar has withdrawn from the world and seldom leaves the house. He stays in bed half the day, unable to summon the energy and concentration to make progress on his dissertation. Shoba, on the other hand, stays away from the house as much as she can. She used to be an attentive housekeeper and enthusiastic cook, but the house seems to remind her of her loss. According to Shukumar, she treats the house as if it were a hotel and would eat cereal for dinner if he did not cook. The narrator also reveals that Shoba and Shukumar no longer go out socially or entertain at home.
People who suffer the loss of a loved one often go through a period of not wanting to go on living themselves. They may feel unable to make the effort required to go about daily life. Sadness may drown out all positive emotions. This seems to be true for this couple, and especially of Shukumar.
Shoba and Shukumar's grief has led them to withdraw from each other. Until the nightly power outages began, they avoided each other. Shoba leaves for work early each morning, returns late, and often brings home extra work to occupy her evenings and weekends. When Shoba is home, Shukumar retreats to his computer and pretends to work on his dissertation. He has put the computer in the room that was to be the nursery because he knows that Shoba avoids that room. She comes in briefly each evening to tell him goodnight. He resents even this brief interaction, which Shoba initiates only out of a sense of obligation.
Shoba and Shukumar do not attempt to comfort or support each other. Each withdraws from the relationship, and they endure their grief as if they were two strangers living in a boardinghouse.
Through the game that Shoba and Shukumar play of revealing secrets, readers learn that deception has been a theme in their relationship. They have lied to each other, and the lies have been selfish ones—told not to spare the other's feelings but to allow the person telling the lie to escape some discomfort or sacrifice. To avoid having dinner with Shukumar's mother, Shoba lied and said she had to work late. Shukumar told Shoba that he lost a sweater she had given him, when in reality he returned the sweater and used the money to get drunk.
As these examples of deception are revealed throughout the story, it is clear that Shoba and Shukumar's emotional estrangement began before the loss of their baby. They have always dealt with difficult situations and unpleasant emotions by lying and keeping secrets. When Shoba breaks the stalemate that their grief has caused by initiating a deceptive game, she is following an established pattern. Throughout the week of power outages, Shoba appears to be reaching out to Shukumar. In truth, she is engineering her final separation from him.
Realism through Details
Lahiri uses dozens of everyday details to create a realistic context in which the story takes place. When Shukumar recalls the morning he left for Baltimore, he remembers that the taxicab was red with blue lettering. When he wakes up each morning, he sees Shoba's "long black hairs" on her pillow. The crib in the nursery is made of cherry wood; the changing table is white with mint-green knobs. Taken together, such details comprise a world that readers find familiar. The realism of the environment makes the characters who live in it and the events that take place in it seem real as well.
As the story unfolds, Lahiri provides readers with two conflicting sets of clues as to how it might end. Each evening Shoba and Shukumar seem to draw closer to each other both emotionally and physically. As they share long withheld secrets, they hold hands, kiss, and finally make love. It seems as if ghosts that have haunted their marriage are being exorcised.
Topics for Further Study
- Shoba recalls visits to her grandmother's house in Calcutta. Do research to learn about living conditions in Calcutta for people at various economic levels. What do you think Shoba's grandmother's house was like? What kinds of memories might Shoba have of her visits there, besides those of power outages?
- A theme that runs throughout Lahiri's body of work is that of the challenges faced by immigrants and children of immigrants who must strive to meld two cultures in their lives. Does this theme appear in "A Temporary Matter"? Explain your answer.
- What is your opinion of Shoba and her actions toward Shukumar? Specifically, what do you think of the way she chose to tell Shukumar that she was leaving him? Was she trying to spare his feelings by breaking the news gently, or was she being manipulative and unfair?
- Do research to learn about the challenges faced by couples who suffer the tragedy of a stillborn child. Shoba and Shukumar's marriage does not survive their loss. How common is this? What are some other difficulties that such couples may face, and what do medical professionals recommend to help prevent or minimize them?
- Lahiri included in the story brief descriptions of both Shoba's and Shukumar's mothers. She accomplished this by having the narrator recall a visit from each woman. Why do you think Lahiri included these recollections? What do they add to the story?
At the same time, the game that appears to be drawing them together also reveals a past filled with deception. Things have not always been as they seemed between these two people. In addition, readers learn early in the story that Shoba has always been one to plan ahead and that she keeps a separate bank account. Readers are left to wonder whether the pattern of deception will be broken or intensified.
The balance seems to shift decisively in favor of a happy ending when, on the fifth evening, the narrator declares, "They had survived a difficult time." Shoba's silence that evening has been interpreted as the calm after a storm. But that interpretation is as misleading as Shoba's behavior has been. Readers, like Shukumar, have been given mixed signals and only learn at the end which set of clues was reliable.
According to the 2000 census, there were nearly 1.7 million Indian Americans in the United States at that time. This was more than double the figure for 1990, making Indian Americans the fastest-growing group in the nation. As of 2004, Indian Americans are the third largest group of Asian Americans, after those of Chinese and Filipino origin. California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida are among the states with large numbers of Americans of Indian origin.
Indian Americans are among the best educated and wealthiest of all Americans. In 2000, their median household income was more than $60,000, compared to a median of just over $41,000 for non-Hispanic white Americans. Substantial numbers of Indian Americans work in the high-tech industry and also in various engineering and health care occupations. This is unsurprising given India's strong tradition of education in math and science. In addition, the fact that most Indian immigrants arrive in the United States speaking fluent English is an economic advantage. English is one of the official languages of India, a legacy of its long status as a colony of Britain.
As the number of Indian Americans grows, so does their influence on American culture. Indian foods are increasingly available not only at restaurants—many of them owned by Indian Americans—but also in suburban supermarkets. Many large American cities have at least one Hindu temple. The works of Indian American writers and filmmakers have generally been well received by an American public eager to know more about India and about Indian Americans, who are more and more likely to be among their neighbors and coworkers.
Interpreter of Maladies, the collection in which "A Temporary Matter" appears, won widespread praise from American critics when it appeared. Besides the nearly universal approval bestowed on the book, the most remarkable feature of the criticism is that nearly every reviewer compared Lahiri to one or more literary predecessors and no two reviewers seem to have linked her with the same writers.
New York Times Book Review critic Caleb Crain declares that "Samuel Richardson's latest heir is Jhumpa Lahiri," a reference to Richardson's eighteenth-century novel Pamela in which a household servant is the unwilling object of a wealthy young man's lust. The connection between Lahiri and Richardson is not obvious to all, but Crain also compares Lahiri to Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway. "There is nothing accidental about her success," Crain concludes, "her plots are as elegantly constructed as a fine proof in mathematics."
Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Kipen sees similarities with Philip Roth and Lan Samantha Chang. Like the former's Good-Bye, Columbus and the latter's Hunger, Kipen writes, Lahiri's work "transcends mere ethnic exoticism." He praises her use of "simple, familiar tools—subtle characterization, meaningful but never portentous detail."
Ellen Emry Heltzel, writing in The Oregonian, calls Interpreter of Maladies "an impressive start, signaling the arrival of yet another notable Anglo-Indian writer at a time when, in literary circles at least, India is all the rage." The comment is an implied comparison to Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Divakaruni, and other writers who deal with themes similar to those found in Lahiri's work.
In general, critics in Asia and other non-Western countries have not been as approving as have Americans. Reviewing Interpreter of Maladies in Time International magazine, Nisid Hajari writes, "At times the three stories that deal with the souring of love … read like journal entries, or schematics to the collapse of a relationship. Their declines are almost too measured, too academic to evoke much sympathy or uncontrived sadness." Hajari nevertheless called the collection "assured and powerful" and implies that Lahiri's next effort may be an improvement.
Norvell is an independent educational writer who specializes in English and literature. In this essay, Norvell discusses the story as "the interaction between an active woman and a passive man."
The world that Jhumpa Lahiri creates in "A Temporary Matter" is one in which women are in charge. Women act; men react. This state of affairs is a reversal of traditional gender roles in India, the country from which both Shoba's and Shukumar's parents emigrated, and the United States. This role reversal gives the story a strongly modern feel.
Both the author and the critics who analyze her work categorize Lahiri along with other female Indian American writers whose work deals with the cultural conflicts faced by immigrants and their children. But Lahiri's stories in general, and this one in particular, do not seem to grapple with cultural issues as much as with gender issues. The dynamic that drives "A Temporary Matter" is the interaction between an active woman and a passive man. It is the kind of situation that today's readers would find credible and compelling whether the characters were children of immigrants or descendants of the Pilgrims.
That Shoba and Shukumar are second-generation Americans of Indian heritage is incidental. They eat Indian food. And when a visit from Shoba's mother is recalled, readers learn that she is a Hindu. But these facts have no impact on how Shoba and Shukumar respond to the loss of their child or behave toward each other. The husband and wife could just as well eat Italian food or fast food, and the visiting mother might just as easily have been a Catholic or a Jew. Shoba and Shukumar are apparently divorced from the religion and traditions of their forebears. Far from struggling to balance two traditions, they have set themselves adrift from all traditions. They are thoroughly modern and secular, and their story could be the story of any educated thirty-something couple.
Freedom from tradition leaves Shoba and Shukumar to work out the terms of their relationship on their own. Individual personalities, free of cultural restrictions, shape their relationship and their lives. And in this marriage, that fact puts Shoba in the driver's seat.
Although Shoba has been changed by the loss of her child, she has found the strength and determination to restart her life. She goes to her job, and she even works out at a gym. She still has the will to plan ahead and to take the initiative; she simply channels her energy in new directions. Instead of stocking the pantry and planning parties, she carefully plans how to extricate herself from her marriage. She initiates a game designed to gradually open a channel of communication between Shukumar and herself that is wide enough to accommodate the message she has to deliver. At the same time, she finds and leases an apartment for herself. Her response to trying circumstances is to set about changing them.
Shukumar, on the other hand, is a passive victim of those same circumstances. He stays in bed late and does not leave the house or even brush his teeth regularly. He rarely initiates interaction with Shoba; instead, he reacts to her action. When she leaves her gym shoes and satchel in the kitchen, he moves them out of his way without saying anything to her. When Shoba suggests that they eat by candlelight, he searches out candles and lights them. When Shoba starts the game of revealing secrets, it becomes the focus of his days. He spends hours thinking about what she might say to him and what he should say to her that evening. While Shoba is out interacting with the world and creating a foundation for her future, Shukumar languishes. He is engaged with neither the present nor the future. In fact, he is paralyzed.
The roles in this marriage, those of the active woman and the passive man, were established long before the tragedy. Early in the story, readers learn that Shukumar finds Shoba's ability to plan ahead astonishing. In a description of their past trips to a farmer's market, Shoba leads him through the crowds and does all the choosing, haggling, and buying. Shukumar is seen "trailing behind her with canvas bags." Shukumar's trip to the conference in Baltimore, which resulted in his being away at the time of the stillbirth, was made at Shoba's insistence. He had not wanted to go, but he did as she told him to.
These incidents and others set the stage for Shoba's manipulation of Shukumar during the week of the power outages. Readers know that Shoba is leading and Shukumar is following long before it is clear where they are going. Shukumar, however, does not even realize that Shoba is leading him until the game has played out.
Shukumar's passive role is not limited to his relationship with his wife. Both Shoba's and Shukumar's mothers make brief appearances in the story through recollections of their visits. Both women share Shoba's active, independent nature, and both dominate and intimidate Shukumar.
Shoba's mother is an immigrant, born and brought up in a Hindu society in which wives were expected to be humble and obedient servants to their husbands. Men led; women followed. Shoba's mother lives in Arizona now. Perhaps not coincidentally, her husband—Shoba's father—is not mentioned. It is unclear whether he is still living.
Shoba's mother comes to stay for two months after the stillbirth. Although her practice of Hinduism links her to the culture in which she was brought up, she is surprisingly modern and self-sufficient. Not only does she cook dinner every night, as Shoba once did, she also "drove herself to the supermarket." This is more remarkable than it might seem. In another of Lahiri's stories, a Hindu housewife a generation younger than Shoba's mother is not able to drive. Readers learn, too, that Shoba's mother once held a job in a department store.
What Do I Read Next?
- Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake (2003), is a story that began with an incident in the author's childhood. In her parents' Bengali culture, each child has two names, a pet name used by family and friends and a "good name" used more formally. Lahiri's first American teacher found her good name too difficult and began using the private, pet name without understanding how inappropriate this was. The incident was such a powerful example of the cultural dissonance experienced by immigrants and children of immigrants that Lahiri made it the starting point of her novel.
- The Unknown Errors of Our Lives: Stories (2002) is a collection of nine stories with female protagonists. Its author, Chitra Divakaruni, is an American immigrant from India who explores the same issues as does Lahiri, but from the point of view of the older generation born abroad.
- The Middleman and Other Stories (1988), by Bharati Mukherjee, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1988. It is the first story collection published by Mukherjee, who continues to be a prolific writer. The stories deal with the experiences of immigrants to the United States from many nations.
- Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories (1971) is a collection of all thirty-one short stories by O'Connor, who is widely considered one of the best American short story writers. Lahiri has mentioned O'Connor as a writer whom she admires.
- Finding the Center: Two Narratives (1984) contains two personal narratives by Nobel Prize–winning author V. S. Naipaul. Naipaul was born and reared in Trinidad (where his parents had immigrated to from India), and moved to London as a young man. The challenge of straddling cultures is a theme that pervades Naipaul's work and links it to Lahiri's. "Prologue to an Autobiography," the first narrative in Finding the Center, explores this theme in some detail.
In traditional Indian society, a woman often goes from being a young wife in a subservient position in her father-in-law's household to being an elderly widow in a subservient position in her son-in-law's household. Therefore, Shoba's mother could be expected to treat Shukumar with deference. But there is nothing subservient or deferential about this woman. Although she is generally polite to Shukumar, when he mentions the death of his child, Shoba's mother says to him accusingly, "But you weren't even there."
Less is revealed about Shukumar's mother. She, too, continues to observe the religious traditions of her homeland. Her visit to Shoba and Shukumar's home is timed to mark the twelve-year anniversary of Shukumar's father's death. What is notable is that Shukumar's mother comes for a two-week stay during which she imposes upon Shukumar, in his own home, certain traditions that mean nothing to him. Further, Shukumar dreads having dinner with his mother without Shoba there "to say more of the right things because he came up with only the wrong ones." Clearly, Shukumar is intimidated by his mother's power to impose her will upon him and by her habit of finding fault with him. Once again, Shukumar is at the mercy of a powerful, take-charge woman.
What lies at the heart of this story is neither a conflict between cultures nor a power struggle between the genders. The two sides are not evenly matched enough to make for a struggle. Although Shukumar hurts Shoba in the end by revealing a devastating secret, he is like a wounded animal whose lashing out is impulsive and, ultimately, ineffectual. Given what has transpired between Shoba and Shukumar, readers have no doubt that she will recover from the blow and make a life for herself. Shukumar's fate is much more uncertain.
Source: Candyce Norvell, Critical Essay on "A Temporary Matter," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
Remy is a freelance writer in Pensacola, Florida. In the following essay, Remy examines Jhumpa Lahiri's use of irony in "A Temporary Matter."
"A Temporary Matter," the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri's debut Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Interpreter of Maladies, captures a pivotal moment in a couple's relatively short but eventful marriage. At times absurdly funny, at others heartbreakingly sad, Lahiri's tale examines how a tragic loss can lead to indifference and a breakdown in communication between two people who once loved each other. The author's use of irony in various forms makes the transition even more poignant, for it underscores an element of suspense as it brings about the story's denouement.
Lahiri increases the ironic quality of the story by setting up a situation in which the emotionally distant couple must interact more closely. Because the utility company will turn off the electricity for one hour each night for five consecutive nights to make repairs after a recent snowstorm, Shoba and Shukumar, deprived of their usual distractions, must turn to each other for companionship. To heighten her characters' isolation, Lahiri informs the reader that it is only the houses on the "quiet, tree-lined streets" that experience the nightly power outages and not the shops near the trolley stop.
Although the utility company assures the residents of the neighborhood that the inconvenience is only "a temporary matter," the blackout has a transforming effect on the neighborhood and its residents. Despite the cold, neighbors chat with one another as they stroll up and down the street carrying flashlights. The darkness and cold, fresh air instill a restless feeling while enforcing a sense of community. "Tonight, with no lights, they would have to eat together," says the narrator, describing the situation inside Shoba and Shukumar's house. The power outage forces a change in routine—from voluntary separation to forced interaction.
Ever since the loss of their child in September, Shoba and Shukumar have lived separate lives under the same roof. Within the span of only a few months, they have constructed for themselves a routine structured on the avoidance of each other and the horrible truth that has changed their married life forever. In an effort to delay her homecoming and an inevitable confrontation with her husband, Shoba spends long hours at work and at the gym. Shukumar, on the other hand, remains ensconced on the third floor, ostensibly writing his dissertation. Both husband and wife are depressed, and neither is willing to acknowledge that their marriage has lost something vital, something more than just romance.
Until recently, Shoba had always been neat and tidy, but now she deposits her briefcase in the middle of the hall and leaves her clothes strewn about the room; she is so weary that she does not even bother to untie her shoes before removing them. At thirty-three, she looks "like the type of woman she'd once claimed she would never resemble." Shoba's slightly rumpled appearance reminds Shukumar of a time when she was more carefree and all "too eager to collapse into his arms." Alas, those days are no more, and her rumpled appearance reveals a different attitude toward Shukumar.
The relationship has deteriorated to the point that Shukumar never leaves the house, not even to retrieve the mail, and sleeps until it is almost lunchtime, drinking coffee Shoba had brewed earlier that morning. He cannot find the motivation he needs to finish his dissertation but reads novels instead. Everything in his life seems to have lost color, vibrancy. The love he once felt for Shoba has lost its ardor, for he sees her beauty fading. "The cosmetics that had seemed superfluous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow." The woman he once loved has disappeared and with her his own passion.
What proves even more ironic is that Shukumar's growing alienation toward his wife is exacerbated by the knowledge that it is reciprocated. The couple has reached a stalemate, an impasse that has quickly led to indifference. The two live separate lives, yet they pretend to participate in a marriage. When Shoba finally stops in to greet him at night, Shukumar tries to look busy. "Don't work too hard," says Shoba ironically, aware, perhaps, that the dissertation is not progressing smoothly. Shukumar seeks to escape his wife's attention by moving his office to the nursery, a place Shoba avoids. "It was the one time in the day she sought him out, and yet he'd come to dread it. He knew it was something she forced herself to do." Shoba and Shukumar occupy separate floors of the house, masquerading as a couple—that is, until the lights go out.
In addition to highlighting the couple's estrangement, the power outage adds an element of suspense as it draws the characters' differences sharply into focus. Eating dinner that first night in the dim glow of birthday candles which Shukumar must light constantly, Shoba is reminded of the power failures she experienced as a child in India. To pass the time, her grandmother would have Shoba and the other members of her family tell a joke, recite a fact, or tell a story for all to enjoy. Wishing to break the awkward silence between her and her husband, Shoba suddenly has the idea that she and Shukumar should pass the evening in the same manner, the only difference being that they must tell each other something they've never told before. While it is ironic that they never thought to make such personal revelations until the lights go out, the idea of a married couple divulging their deepest secrets to each other adds an air of mystery to the darkness that surrounds them and heightens the suspense of what will actually be revealed.
Upon hearing his wife's idea, Shukumar observes that Shoba "hadn't appeared so determined in months," unaware of the real purpose behind her suggestion. An air of suspense enhances the story further as Shukumar reluctantly agrees to play the game even though he doesn't have a childhood story about India to share. "What didn't they know about each other?" he thinks, foreshadowing the story's conclusion. Thus, Lahiri enhances the story's ironic quality by creating a situation whereby her characters, isolated in darkness yet sustained by the customs of their native land, must confront each other with the truth.
At first the revelations are harmless and insignificant. They involve minor intrusions of privacy or lapses in thought, white lies told in brief moments of selfishness, or desperate, unconscious attempts to preserve one's sense of dignity. With each night that passes, the truths that Shoba and Shukumar exchange become bolder and more honest as the couple struggles to relate and communicate. "Somehow, without saying anything, it had turned into this. Into an exchange of confessions—the little ways they'd hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves" (emphasis added).
As the nightly game progresses, Shukumar contemplates what he should say to his wife. He seems happy to at last be relieved of the secrets that have burdened him for so long. He is so happy, in fact, that he cannot decide the order in which to make his confessions. Moreover, the thought of what Shoba will say next excites him, creating a sense of anticipation which the reader shares. Each revelation appears to bring them closer together (though, as the story's ironic conclusion demonstrates, any hope of a reunion is beyond reach). "Something happened when the house was dark," says the narrator. "They were able to talk to each other again." This improved communication between Shoba and Shukumar inspires displays of affection long absent from their marriage. She is kind and patient with him, holding his hand in hers to show understanding, whereas he takes even more pride in planning and preparing the meals they now enjoy by candlelight. On the third night, Shoba and Shukumar kiss awkwardly on the sofa like a couple exploring each other's bodies for the first time. On the fourth night, they climb the stairs to bed and make love "with a desperation they had forgotten," apparently having forgiven each other for their acts of neglect and selfishness.
But, on the morning of the fifth night, they receive a notice from the utility company stating that the repairs have been completed early, signaling an end to their apparently rekindled romance. "I suppose this is the end of our game," Shukumar says when he sees Shoba reading the notice. It is ironic that Shukumar should make this statement, because he doesn't know the half of it, for the period of harmony and affection that Shoba and Shukumar have experienced is, like the power outage that brought it about, "a temporary matter," the calm before the storm—the one that heralds the end of their marriage. Together, they have played a game in which they have pretended to want the same things when neither one of them has had the courage to state the obvious: their marriage is over. Moreover, the loss of their child has proved insurmountable, for neither spouse is willing to suffer that kind of pain and sorrow again. "Only he didn't want her to be pregnant again," the narrator says as Shukumar anxiously awaits Shoba's final declaration. "He didn't want to have to pretend to be happy."
As she prepares to make her final revelation, Shoba changes the candlelight ritual, insisting that they leave the lights on, moving them at once to a less intimate but more vulnerable position, since neither is able to hide: "I want you to see my face when I tell you this," she says gently, though she refuses to look him in the eye.
When Shoba tells Shukumar that she has signed a lease for an apartment on Beacon Hill, he understands immediately that the confessions they've made recently have served as a preamble for a far more disingenuous revelation. Shoba has not made her confessions in an attempt to restore their relationship but to prepare herself for a transition to a more independent life. Lahiri uses suspense to heighten the irony of the scene as the reader anticipates Shukumar's reaction.
It sickened Shukumar, knowing that she had spent these past evenings preparing for a life without him. He was relieved and yet he was sickened. This was what she'd been trying to tell him for the past four evenings. This was the point of her game.
The irony of their situation is painfully clear to see. The "little ways" in which they have disappointed each other have become for Shukumar acts of betrayal, leading to Shoba's final act of betrayal.
But Shoba, in making her latest revelation, has unwittingly brought about a reversal in power—the power to wound—which Shoba thinks is hers exclusively. As though the game were continuing, Shukumar counters Shoba's announcement with one of his own that proves devastating in the end.
Though the death of their child has been difficult for Shoba to accept, there is also an undercurrent of resentment, as expressed by her mother, that the loss would have been somewhat easier to bear had Shukumar been at the hospital for the delivery. Shoba believes that she has experienced her loss alone. Moreover, she seeks consolation in the thought that the baby's gender has remained unknown, therefore preventing her from forming too deep an attachment to her dead child, for, when an ultrasound was taken, Shoba declined the doctor's offer to know the child's sex. "In a way she almost took pride in her decision, for it enabled her to seek refuge in a mystery," says the narrator. But now Lahiri adds a twist, making the revelation that, although Shoba "assumed it was a mystery for him, too," Shukumar knew. Ironically, now it is Shukumar who has the power to wound.
Thus the stage is set for Shukumar's final, heartbreaking revelation. "There was something he'd sworn he would never tell her, and for six months he had done his best to block it from his mind," says the narrator, yet the present circumstances weaken Shukumar's resolve to the breaking point. Contrary to what Shoba and her mother believe, Shukumar arrived at the hospital shortly after the baby was born, only to find his wife asleep, and was then taken to see their child with the hope that "holding the baby might help him with the process of grieving." That day Shukumar "promised himself … that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise." Shoba's decision to move out makes her husband realize that their marriage is, indeed, loveless. There is nothing left to bind him to his promise. Shoba, who is "the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad," finds herself unprepared for the biggest surprise of all.
When Shukumar describes for Shoba how he had held their son, his tiny fingers "curled shut" like hers while she sleeps, he sees his wife's face "contorted with sorrow," for, though she has initiated their separation, she fully comprehends the loss that has engulfed them. Without a word, she turns out the lights and sits down at the table, where Shukumar joins her. "They wept together," says the narrator, "for the things they now knew."
This poignant scene, at once tender and yet filled with an abandonment marked by despair, could not have been rendered as artfully had the author not led up to the ironic conclusion by delineating the emotional predicament of her characters and creating a sense of suspense in the reader about what would happen to their marriage. In the hands of an author less skilled than Jhumpa Lahiri, the result would have been cool detachment rather than one of profound empathy.
Source: David Remy, Critical Essay on "A Temporary Matter," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
Crain, Caleb, "Subcontinental Drift," in New York Times Book Review, July 11, 1999.
Hajari, Nisid, "The Promising Land," in Time International, Vol. 154, No. 10, September 13, 1999, p. 49.
Heltzel, Ellen Emry, "A Voice Echoing in the Culture Chasm," in the Oregonian, July 11, 1999.
Kipen, David, "Interpreting Indian Culture with Stories," in the San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 1999, p. E-1.
Lahiri, Jhumpa, Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin, 1999, pp. 1–22.
Minzesheimer, Bob, "For Pulitzer Winner Lahiri, a Novel Approach," in USA Today, August 19, 2003.
Bala, Suman, Jhumpa Lahiri, the Master Storyteller: A Critical Response to "Interpreter of Maladies," Khosla Publishing House, 2002.
Indian literary scholar Suman Bala has collected thirty essays by Indian critics and scholars discussing Lahiri's story collection. The volume is valuable in providing Western readers with Indian perspectives on Lahiri's work.
Jayapal, Pramila, Pilgrimage: One Woman's Return to a Changing India, Seal Press, 2000.
Jayapal was born in Madras in southern India, grew up in Indonesia and Singapore, and came to the United States as a teenager to complete her education. At the age of thirty, Jayapal returned to India for two years with a fellowship that allowed her to travel throughout the country and write about her experiences and observations. Jayapal is an international development specialist, and her narrative is a mixture of scholarly observation and personal narrative—the latter including the hair-raising tale of her son's birth. The book is a useful portrait of India today.
Patel, Vibhuti, "Maladies of Belonging," in Newsweek International, September 20, 1999, p. 8.
In this wide-ranging interview published soon after the publication of Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri answers questions about her relationship to India and her approach to writing.
Zimbardo, Xavier, India Holy Song, Rizzoli, 2000.
Lahiri wrote the foreword to this book of photographs taken throughout India over a fifteen-year period. The forward tells of her childhood visits to Calcutta and her responses to India.
More From encyclopedia.com
Anxiety , GRACE PALEY 1985 INTRODUCTION AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY PLOT SUMMARY CHARACTERS THEMES STYLE HISTORICAL CONTEXT CRITICAL OVERVIEW CRITICISM SOURCES FURTHER RE… Eleven , SANDRA CISNEROS 1991 INTRODUCTION AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY PLOT SUMMARY CHARACTERS THEMES STYLE HISTORICAL CONTEXT CRITICAL OVERVIEW CRITICISM SOURCES FURTHE… Kitchen , Introduction Author Biography Plot Summary Characters Themes Style Historical Context Critical Overview Criticism Sources For Further Study Kitchen i… Bliss , Bliss Sources By the time of her death, Katherine Mansfield had established herself as an important and influential contemporary short story writer.… Beloved , Beloved Introduction Author Biography Plot Summary Characters Themes Style Historical Context Critical Overview Criticism Sources For Further Study A… Tex , Tex Introduction Author Biography Plot Summary Characters Themes Style Historical Context Critical Overview Criticism Sources For Further Study Susan…
About this article
A Temporary Matter
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article
You Might Also Like
A Temporary Matter