Writing on Women Writers

A site for college students to write about women writers.

“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian American women writer whom authored both a novel and several highly acclaimed short story collections. Lahiri’s short story “A Temporary Matter” first appeared in The New Yorker and was later included in her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The stories are centered around the assimilation and the integration of Indian and Indian American in the United States while sustaining their Indian culture. According to Noele Brada-Williams of San Jose State University, “Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work features diverse and unrelated characters, a variety of narrative styles, and no common locale. Indeed, the text even transcends national boundaries, being set in both India and the United States. However, a deeper look reveals the intricate use of pattern and motif to bind the stories together, including the recurring themes of the barriers to opportunities for human communication; community, including marital, extra marital, and parent-child relationships; and the dichotomy of care and neglect” (Noelle Brada-Williams). “A Temporary Matter” presents the failing marriage of the American Indian couple Shukumar and Shoma, six months after Shoma’s miscarriage. Lahiri utilizes quiet details and signifiers to illuminate the destruction of the couple’s marriage. Lahiri limits the story to Shukumar’s third-person point of view to convey Shoba’s character to the audience.

Lahiri provides the reader with quiet details throughout her story to gradually convey the couple’s failing marriage to the reader. When the story first begins, the reader senses uncomfortable tension between the couple through limited conversation with each other. When Shoba and Shukumar discuss the scheduled power outage, Shoba states, “But they should do this sort of thing during the day.” Shoba immediately responds with, “When I’m here, you mean,” (Jhumpa Lahiri). Through this brief dialogue, the reader recognizes the repressed tension between the characters. Instead of addressing the miscarriage, Shukumar conveys his emotions by focusing on the minor or insignificant details of their lives. For instance, when Shoba reminds Shukumar of his upcoming dentist appointment, “He ran his tongue over the tops of his teeth; he’d forgotten to brush them that morning. It wasn’t the first time. He hadn’t left the house at all that day, or the day before. The more Shoba stayed out, the more she began putting in extra hours at work and taking on additional projects, the more he wanted to stay in, not even leaving to get the mail, or to buy fruit or wine at the stores by the trolley stop” (Jhumpa Lahiri). Shukumar’s lethargic attention towards the minor details masks his deep distress over the loss of his child and the distance between him and Shoba.

As the story gains momentum, Lahiri quietly shows the reader how estranged Shoba and Shukumar’s relationship has become. Lahiri wrote, “But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. He thought of how long it had been since she looked into his eyes and smiled, or whispered his name on those rare occasions they still reached for each other’s bodies before sleeping” (Jhumpa Lahiri). Lahiri depicts a deeply forlorn picture of the couple’s mannerisms towards each other. Through her word choice, Lahiri quietly illuminates Shoba and Shukumar’s marital issues are potentially unrepairable. According to the American Journal of Public Health, “Depressive symptoms are markedly increased in the early weeks following miscarriage. This effect is substantially modified by number of living children, length of gestation at loss, and attitude toward pregnancy” (R. Neugebauer). Although both Shoba and Shukumar felt deeply depressed after Shoba’s miscarriage, the emotional strain for Shoba was almost unbearable.

“At some point in the evening she visited him. When he heard her approach he would put away his novel and begin typing sentences. She would rest her hands on his shoulders and stare with him into the blue glow of the computer screen. “Don’t work too hard,” she would say after a minute or two, and head off to bed. 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” (Jhumpa Lahiri). The power outage was a brief moment in which the couple reconciled and reflected upon their relationship together. The couple confide in each other, confessing their intimate intrigues and disappointments in each other, breaking the silence and bringing them closer to each other. When the power went out, the couple felt that they could discard their masks confide in one another. Shukumar believed that their evenings together had saved their marriage, however, the power outages were merely a temporary respite to the pain the estranged couple felt.

In Lahiri’s short story, Shoba illuminates more strength than her husband. While Shukumar was in his sixth year of graduate school working on his dissertation, Shoba worked as a copyeditor, providing for both her and her husband. Also, Shoba approached her husband with the idea to share her intimate thoughts with him, taking control of the evenings they spent together under the candlelight. Finally, when the power was turned back on, Shoba turned on the lights and announced, “I’ve been looking for an apartment and I’ve found one,”  concluding the game and their marriage. (Jhumpa Lahiri). Throughout Lahiri’s short story, Shoba illuminated strength over her husband. Although both Shukumar and Shoba realized that their relationship was unreconcilable, Shukumar was unable to approach his wife. Instead, Shukumar hid behind the insignificant details of their lives together. Ultimately, Shoba assumed the initiative to end their relationship and move on.

The temporary matter in Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story could not salvage the Shukmar and Shoba’s marriage. “A Temporary Matter” by Lahiri illuminates the struggle to overcome the loss of a child. Lahiri utilizes quiet details to enhance and drive her story.

In 2011, Lahiri visited the University at Buffalo as a guest speaker for the universities’ Distinguished Speakers Series. I have provided a clip below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP33tPFw47E

Works Cited:

Brada-Williams, Noelle. “Reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” as a Short Story Cycle.” MELUS 29.3/4 (2004): 451-64. Print.

Neugebauer, R., et al. “Determinants of Depressive Symptoms in the Early Weeks After Miscarriage.” American Journal of Public Health 82.10 (1992): 1332-9. Print.

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