“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri is about a couple, Shoba and Shukumar, in a destitute marriage who are informed of a temporary power outage that will take place in the evenings. In the dark, they play a game of shared secrets with each other, starting off with minor indiscretions and leading toward more intimate confessions. Shoba and Shukumar are able to communicate candidly about their relationship and the death of their child in a way they never could with the lights on, and use the outage as a way to bridge the distance that the miscarriage caused between them.
The chronic tension is Shoba’s miscarriage and Shoba and Shukumar’s lack of communication, and the acute tension is the power outage.
I think “A Temporary Matter” is compelling because it was such an intimate and complicated portrait of marriage for such a short story. Lahiri uses memory and inaction to portray the deterioration of Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage, which makes the parting of the couple feel so much more like a loss, because we know as readers what they used to have. Shoba and Shukumar are both characterized by how they used to act, what they used to do, and how they used to treat each other:
She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble.
This leaves the reader wondering how much of the marriage is salvageable, and whether Shoba and Shukumar can ever revive their old relationship, or whether they are doomed to live and grieve as individuals.
I also loved the use of food to represent Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage. Shoba’s past love of cooking and her meticulous joy in grocery shopping are indicative of her previous marital happiness, and her disinterest in these after the miscarriage contributes to the sense of alienation we feel from her character. Food also comes to represent Shukumar’s attempts at intimacy with Shoba, and after the power outages start, he finds himself cooking romantic dinners and excited to go to the grocery store again. In fact, after the power returns, the first thing Shukumar thinks of is the shrimp malai he was planning to make for her:
He had planned on making shrimp malai for Shoba, but when he arrived at the store he didn’t feel like cooking anymore. It wasn’t the same, he thought, knowing that the lights wouldn’t go out. In the store the shrimp looked gray and thin. The coconut milk tin was dusty and overpriced. Still, he bought them, along with a beeswax candle and two bottles of wine.
Bottles of wine are used as olive branches, and so are home cooked meals. I think the power in this motif is that it’s relatable to almost everyone, regardless of whether they’ve been in a failing marriage or not. Food is a form of communication that is often overlooked, and I appreciate Lahiri’s use of it as a craft device.
In my own writing, I think I can apply more subtle and nuanced methods of communication between characters. There isn’t any explosive confrontation between Shoba and Shukumar, and I think that makes the story feel more realistic and personal than characters that are overdramatized in their emotions and behavior. I also want to adopt some of Lahiri’s approach to ‘negative characterization’ – we get a sense of who Shoba and Shukumar are by who they used to be, and the parts of themselves that they lost after the death of their son. In addition, I think food can tell us more about people than we think. Using food to characterize people and relationships is something I’d like to try in the future, and I think Lahiri executes it very well, especially considering how important food is to Indian culture.
Write a story with two characters that have a communication barrier, real or imagined. How do they overcome this? How does this affect the dynamic of their relationship? Is there any way they can be honest with each other?
Why do you think the story was called “A Temporary Matter”? What was temporary in the story? What wasn’t?
Do you think the power outage confessions have a different meaning for Shoba and Shukumar? What do they represent to each of the characters?
Much of “A Temporary Matter” is centered around little snips of memory: dinners past, taxi cabs, dentist appointments. Why do you think this is, especially since the story tackles such large and complex issues, like marriage and miscarriage?