Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” the opening story in her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Interpreter of Maladies,” elegantly unfolds over five evenings of darkness, allowing the couple to confront their grief, intimacy issues, and the secrets they’ve kept from each other, against the backdrop of cultural integration and identity.
In the heart of Boston, Shoba and Shukumar, a married Indian American couple in their thirties, navigate the murky waters of their three-year marriage amidst the backdrop of an impending power outage.
The narrative begins in March, with Shoba, a downtown proofreader, receiving a notice from the electric company about neighborhood repairs that will cut power for an hour each evening at eight.
Shukumar, who’s been home writing his graduate dissertation, notes Shoba’s disheveled return from the gym, a stark contrast to his own unkempt state, highlighting the physical and emotional distance between them since the loss of their stillborn baby six months prior.
Lahiri skillfully uses flashbacks to reveal the couple’s past. Shoba was alone in the hospital for the emergency cesarean that resulted in their baby’s stillbirth, believing Shukumar, away at a conference, didn’t arrive in time.
The tragedy transforms their home into a space of mourning and detachment, with Shoba withdrawing into work and Shukumar taking over the domestic sphere, cooking meals from Shoba’s recipes in an attempt to bridge the gap between them.
The planned power outage becomes a catalyst for change.
On the first night, as Shukumar prepares dinner, they decide to dine in the dark, initiating a game of confessions.
This game, suggested by Shoba, involves sharing secrets they’ve never told each other, leading to revelations that range from mundane to deeply personal.
Each confession, shared under the veil of darkness, peels back layers of their relationship, revealing the complexities and hidden truths that have shaped their marriage.
As the nightly blackouts continue, the couple’s revelations bring them closer, culminating in an awkward but significant physical reconnection.
However, on the final day, when Shoba announces she’s moving out, the true purpose of her suggested game becomes heartbreakingly clear.
In a poignant twist, Shukumar shares his most painful secret: the gender of their lost baby, a truth he’d kept to honor Shoba’s wish.
Shukumar, a 35-year-old doctoral student, embodies the struggle with cultural identity and personal loss.
Viewed through the intimate lens of a “close third” narration, his life in Boston is one of isolation and depression, compounded by the tragic stillbirth of his child. This event deepens his insecurities, both professionally, as he battles to complete his dissertation, and personally, as he envies Shoba’s connection to her Indian heritage—a connection he feels deprived of due to his limited exposure to India.
Shukumar’s guilt over not being present during the critical moments of Shoba’s labor haunts him, contributing to the chasm in their marriage.
As the domestic caretaker, his attempts at cooking symbolize a longing for closeness that remains unfulfilled until the power outages force a temporary reconnection through shared confessions. Despite this brief resurgence of intimacy, Shukumar’s relief at Shoba’s decision to leave reflects his resignation to their irreparable relationship.
Before the tragedy, Shoba is the epitome of preparedness and vigor, qualities that dissipate following the death of her baby, leaving her withdrawn and emblematic of postpartum depression.
At 33, she shifts from a vibrant, organized individual to someone who relinquishes her domestic responsibilities and immerses herself in work, signaling a profound detachment from Shukumar. Shoba’s meticulous planning extends to her personal finances, hinting at her eventual departure.
The power outages serve as a stage for Shoba to confront her marriage’s underlying issues, culminating in her decision to move out.
This act, while seemingly practical, underscores her journey through grief and her struggle with sentimentality, a journey that she and Shukumar only truly acknowledge in their final, shared moment of sorrow.
Shoba’s mother represents the enduring connection to cultural roots and the protective maternal instinct following the loss of the couple’s child. Her stay with Shoba and Shukumar is marked by a palpable tension, as she outwardly resents Shukumar for his absence during the delivery.
Through her devout practices and attempts to maintain a bridge to their Indian heritage, she contrasts sharply with Shukumar’s disconnectedness. Her presence and actions underscore the complexities of navigating grief within a family, highlighting both solidarity and division.
The narrative offers only glimpses of Shukumar’s mother, primarily through shared confessions, yet these mentions paint a picture of lingering grief. The death of her husband leaves her trapped in sorrow, a state that mirrors the prolonged mourning Shoba and Shukumar face.
Her character serves as a poignant reminder that grief can be an enduring presence, casting a long shadow over those left behind. Shukumar’s mother, much like Shoba’s, underscores the narrative’s exploration of loss and the individual ways it is manifested and coped with over time.
1. Loss and Grief
Lahiri delves deep into the heart-wrenching theme of loss and grief, portraying it not just as an emotional aftermath of a tragic event, but as a transformative force that reshapes relationships and individual identities.
Through the lens of Shoba and Shukumar, the story explores how the devastating loss of their baby to stillbirth becomes a silent chasm between them, altering their daily interactions and emotional connections.
Lahiri meticulously illustrates grief’s multifaceted nature—its ability to distance, to change routines, and to lead individuals into isolation, while also showing its potential to catalyze honest communication and emotional reconnection.
The theme extends beyond the personal to touch on cultural aspects of mourning and recovery, highlighting how grief, in its universality, is navigated differently across cultural backgrounds.
2. Intimacy and Marriage
The intricate dynamics of intimacy within a marriage under strain form a central pillar of the narrative.
Lahiri scrutinizes the evolution of Shoba and Shukumar’s relationship from the depths of love to the estrangement wrought by grief. The story intricately maps the erosion of their intimacy, showing how physical and emotional closeness has been replaced by routine and detachment.
Yet, it’s within the darkness of the power outages that the couple finds a unique opportunity to rebuild their intimacy, revealing secrets and sharing truths that they had withheld from each other.
This theme is a poignant exploration of how crises can act as both a barrier and a bridge in relationships, pushing couples apart while also offering a path back to closeness through vulnerability and shared experiences.
3. Deception and Truth
The interplay between deception and truth serves as a powerful undercurrent throughout the story, shaping the characters’ actions and their journey towards reconciliation.
Lahiri uses the nightly confessions as a narrative device to peel back layers of small and large deceptions that have accumulated between Shoba and Shukumar. Each revelation, from the mundane to the deeply personal, acts as a step towards understanding and forgiveness.
This theme is not just about the secrets themselves but about the act of sharing truth as a form of healing. Lahiri subtly suggests that while deception can drive wedges between people, truth has the potential to mend and strengthen bonds, even if it comes with its own pains and revelations.
Through this exploration, the story comments on the complexities of human relationships and the delicate balance between honesty and concealment in the quest for connection and understanding.
Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” masterfully explores themes of loss, grief, intimacy, and the healing power of truth within the intimate setting of a marriage tested by tragedy.
Through the lens of Shoba and Shukumar’s story, Lahiri delves into the complexities of love and loss, the spaces between people, and the bridges they build in search of light in the darkest of times.