“A Temporary Matter,” Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

A married Indian couple in Boston separates.

This story originally appeared in 1998 in The New Yorker, kicking off a two-year period when Jhumpa Lahiri tore up the literary landscape with her short stories. She wasn’t yet 31 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the collection in which this story appears.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

Like many of Lahiri’s stories, that I’ve read at least, “A Temporary Matter” concerns an Indian family cooking Indian food in an American home. In a departure from the Ron Rash and George Saunders stories I’ve been blogging about, Lahiri’s characters are thoughtful, polite, neat, and, as in most of her work, they work diligently at white-collar jobs. In this case, Shoba works as a copyeditor and her husband, Shukumar, is finishing his dissertation.

Setting: Boston, a house on a “quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived for three years.”

I’m impressed at how well she limits the story to Shukumar’s third-person point of view to paint a female character who I didn’t find entirely sympathetic. Through this point of view, which seems to catch everything Shoba and Shukumar do, Lahiri continually feeds us quiet details that almost slip by, but which slowly build a picture of a failing marriage.

She quickly goes into a flashback to six months pre-story time, when Shoba went into labor and they lost the baby. OK. So we know why Shukumar is thinking “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.” It’s a common story. Couple loses first child, depression sets in, estrangement follows. That all happens, and as expected, in “A Temporary Matter.”

Where Lahiri makes good fiction is by bringing us into the couple’s lives their final week together and making even the kitchen towel sing with meaning. She uses a device, describing it in the opening paragraph, to change the routine and force her characters together: “The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.”

The story cycles around the dinners and the conversations they have in this darkened hour every day. They use candles, and we know from the details that, as they’ve been drifting apart inside the home, they’ve been growing steadily more isolated from everything outside the home, until it’s claustrophobic with tension. She starts something:

“Let’s do that,” she said suddenly.
“Do what?”
“Say something to each other in the dark.”
“Like what? I don’t know any jokes.”
“No, no jokes.” She thought for a minute. “How about telling each other something we’ve never told before.”
“I used to play this game in high school,” Shukumar recalled. “When I got drunk.”
“You’re thinking of truth or dare. This is different. Okay, I’ll start.” She took a sip of wine. “The first time I was alone in your apartment, I looked in your address book to see if you’d written me in. I think we’d know each other two weeks.”

They share little intrigues and disappointments in each other with each other, dark banalities. The final ones are bigger: “I’ve been looking for an apartment and I’ve found one,” she said, narrowing her eyes on something, it seemed, behind his left shoulder.”

His turn: “Our baby was a boy,” he said. “His skin was more red than brown. He had black hair on his head. He weighed almost five pounds. His fingers were curled shut, just like yours in the night.”

Not gonna lie, I teared up.

Lahiri deploys the plot device, of the daily hour of darkness in which the two can communicate, particularly effectively as a structure to support the story and keep it moving. It also shows that a relationship that works one hour out of twenty-four, and only by candlelight is a relationship under pressure. Shoba turns the lights back on before telling Shukumar about the apartment, and his response is, “Shouldn’t we keep the lights off?”

Here’s an excerpt from an interview that sheds light on how Lahiri used her life as material for a new story:

I was my parents’ firstborn child. When I was seven, my mother became pregnant again, and gave birth to my sister in November, 1974. A few months later, one of her closest friends in Rhode Island, another Bengali woman, also learned that she was expecting. The woman’s husband, like my father, worked at the university. Based on my mother’s recommendation, her friend saw the same doctor and planned to deliver at the same hospital where my sister was born. One rainy evening, my parents received a call from the hospital. The woman’s husband cried into the telephone as he told my parents that their child had been born dead. There was no reason for it. It had simply happened, as it sometimes does. I remember the weeks following, my mother cooking food and taking it over to the couple, the grief in place of the son who was supposed to have filled their home. If writing is a reaction to injustice, or a search for meaning when meaning is taken away, this was that initial experience for me. I remember thinking that it could have happened to my parents and not to their friends, and I remember, because the same thing had not happened to our family, as my sister was by then a year old already, also feeling ashamed. But, mainly, I felt the unfairness of it—the unfairness of the couple’s expectation, unfulfilled…When I was thirty years old, digging in the loose soil of a new story, I unearthed that time, that first tragic thing I could remember happening, and wrote a story called “A Temporary Matter.” It is not exactly the story of what had happened to that couple, nor is it a story of something that happened to me. Springing from my childhood, from the part of me that was slowly reverting to what I loved most when I was young, it was the first story that I wrote as an adult.

Lahiri has published eight stories in The New Yorker. After getting three into the magazine (“A Temporary Matter” was her first), her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was published in 1999 and won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That’s about the hugest debut a writer can have.

Since then she’s published two more books, The Namesake (2003), a novel, and Unaccustomed Earth (2009), her second story collection.

According to her bio, she has an arts background on her mom’s side of the family. Her mom wrote poems in Bengali which “were published now and then in literary magazines in New England or Calcutta.” Her grandfather and uncle were professional visual artists.

For Lahiriheads, here’s an interview with The Atlantic.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born July 11, 1967 and was raised in Rhode Island. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English lit from Barnard College, in Manhattan, in 1989. She got a shitload of degrees from Boston University in the years following: M.A. in English, M.A. in creative writing, M.A. in comparative lit and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies. To recap: 1 bachelor’s, 3 master’s, and a Ph.D.

Here’s what I like: After getting all those degrees she got a writing fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, giving her time to write the stories that would be collected in Interpreter of Maladies. More on that fellowship in a later post.

She now lives in Brooklyn; house, husband, young kids and all that.

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