The Longevity of “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Longevity of “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Can you save a marriage if it?s already broken?

Image for postA screenshot from the YouTube video re-inaction of Lahiri?s short story.

?A Temporary Matter? presents the failing marriage of the American Indian couple Shukumar and Shoba, six months after Shoba?s delivery of their stillborn baby. Husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba learn how to communicate after the death of their baby once again, but in an unconventional way: only when the lights are off. As their marriage deteriorated after the death of their child Shukumar and Shoba lose their identity as a couple when they grieve as individuals. They begin acting as individuals and eventually grow to be their own separate individuals who eventually make their own decisions.

Although the story is written in an omniscient narrative, Lahiri privileges Shukumar?s point of view throughout the story. By placing emphasis on Shukumar?s actions, readers understand the events in the story through Shukumar?s experiences. As the story progresses each item Shukumar touches triggers a memory to a happier time in the couple?s life together. For example, the birthday candles used during the blackout remind him of a surprise party Shoba threw for him where ?One hundred and twenty people had crammed into the house ? all the friends and the friends of friends they now systematically avoided?. It is through Shukumar?s point of view that readers are convinced that the failing marriage may be salvageable. Only through the small insight we receive from Shoba do we learn her true point of view on the end of the doomed marriage. Another item that triggers Shukumar?s memories would be food. As Shukumar prepares their meals, a huge part of Indian culture, he remembers how Shoba used to take so much pride in her dishes: ?Shoba would throw together meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare, from things she had frozen and bottled, not cheap things in tins but peppers she had marinated herself with rosemary, and chutneys that she cooked on Sundays, stirring boiling pots of tomatoes and prunes.?

Being in Shukumar?s perspective, readers are able to see how his love for Shoba that was once steadily declining begins to rekindle. At the beginning of the story he reveals that ?Each day, Shukumar noticed, her beauty, which had once overwhelmed him, seemed to fade. The cosmetics that had seemed superfluous were necessary now, not to improve her but to define her somehow?. But later when Shukumar is reflecting on her past he remembers her beauty and is inspired by it instead of discouraged saying, ?It felt good to remember her as she was then, how bold yet nervous she?d been when they first met, how hopeful?.

The blackouts become the last chance effort to save their relationship. The duo is forced to communicate when they get receive the notice that ?for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.?. When they sit down for dinner together, forced to communicate for the first time in a long time, Shoba has an idea. When the power would go out while visiting relatives in India, Shoba?s family would share jokes or poems. Shoba suggests to Shukumar that they tell each other secrets in the dark and soon the secret-sharing becomes an anticipated game for the both of them each night. Shukumar reveals ?he wondered what he would say to her the next night, and what she would say, the thought of it exciting him?. When the lights were off the couple had a chance to reconcile their marital issues and reconnect. The game became a time for them both to confess their guilt that had been weighing them down. A time to actually confide in each other and grow closer together. Lahiri writes, ?Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again. The third night after supper they?d sat together on the sofa, and once it was dark he began kissing her awkwardly on her forehead and her face, and though it was dark he closed his eyes, and knew that she did, too. The fourth night they walked carefully upstairs, to bed, feeling together for the final step with their feet before the landing, and making love with a desperation they had forgotten?.

Unfortunately, the power outage is a ?temporary matter? and not something that has the power to reverse the death of their baby, or trump all of the little things that have been signaling problems in the couple?s marriage. Shukumar?s point of view gives readers hope that the marriage can be salvaged and only through Shoba?s confessions do we fully appreciate her point of view in this story about the end of a marriage.

The title of this piece is very ironic considering the couple?s marital issues could never be solved in a temporary manner. Despite all of their efforts, the death of their baby will have long lasting effects. Ignoring the huge problem that the couple refuses to face, Lahiri tends to focus on the smaller details of the pair?s everyday life to give readers insight into their declining relationship. In the third paragraph when they receive the notice for the five-day blackout, Shoba groans, ?But they should do this sort of thing during the day? and Shukumar replies with, ?When I?m here, you mean?. This short excerpt shows readers how much their relationship has deteriorated. They no longer interact as a couple. Avoidance has become second nature.Shoba will leave for work early and come home late and Shukumar has moved his office into the room they had decorated for their baby, simply because he knows Shoba will avoid entering at all costs.

When reminded of his dentist appointment, Shukumar ?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.? With Shoba being away at work all the time, Shukumar feels no motivation to leave the house or to even take care of himself. Like his relationship, Shukumar has changed. His identity has evolved. Lahiri sums up Shukumar?s point of view on their new relationship in the following quotation:

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.

The secrets they reveal are more intense every night building up to the climax when on the final night they each reveal to each other their most hidden secret; Shoba shares that she has signed a lease for her own apartment to move away from Shukumar but that ?it was nobody?s fault? They?d been through enough. She needed some time alone? and Shukumar reveals that he has always known the sex of their dead child and he even got the chance to hold him in his arms.

Each secret devastates the other partner. Shukumar knows that his wife?s one wish was to never know the sex of their baby, but he reveals it to her anyway because he no longer loves her. Lahiri makes that obvious when she writes, ?he promised himself that day 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?.

The final sentence of the story sums everything up: ?They wept together, for the things they now knew?. Some marriages don?t last forever and not all obstacles can be overcome; this happens to be one of them. The title of the story is a symbol not only for the couple?s temporary relationship, but also the temporary game they play together. The game was a final effort to confess their last secrets and move on as individuals. Told with emphasis on Shukumar?s thoughts and actions readers are swayed to believe the marriage might be saved, but found in Shoba?s brief words it is evident the end has come to the temporary matter.

Interpreter of Maladies

The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour?

www.nytimes.com

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