Study Guide

Interpreter of Maladies "A Temporary Matter"

By Jhumpa Lahiri

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"A Temporary Matter"

A Temporary Matter

  • They just went through a snowstorm and some electrical lines went down on the street they've lived on for the last three years. Maybe you're thinking, "Oooh, romantic!" Forget that. This couple has been together for years. They're way over the whole romance thing.
  • Shoba, the wife, has just come home from both work and the gym, so she's not looking all that hot. But her husband doesn't seem to mind; instead, it reminds him of how she looked when they were young, bar-hopping partiers.
  • Shoba's not thinking such romantic thoughts though. She's practical and points out that these rolling blackouts should really occur during the day.
  • Of course, this brings Shukumar into the present and he points out that's when he's home. (He's a stay-at-home hubby, finishing up his dissertation on "agrarian revolts in India.")
  • The blackouts are beginning on March 19, which is today according to the calendar Shoba's looking at. She reminds Shukumar that he also has a dentist appointment next Friday.
  • Cue: Shukumar's thoughts. He's thinking about how he hardly leaves the house, how he hardly wants to do anything, while Shoba has been working overtime.
  • Then he really gets into it. He recalls how, six months ago, he missed Shoba's labor (which was three weeks early) because he went to an academic conference Shoba pushed him to attend. The image he thinks about most is Shoba waving at him as his cab pulls away from the house. Starting to think this whole thing isn't going to end well?
  • Shoba's labor doesn't go well and the baby's born dead. Where was Shukumar? You guessed it. At the conference.
  • So now Shoba does her own thing and Shukumar does his. That means 33-year-old Shoba pretty much doesn't act like a pretty, young wife anymore. And for Shukumar, that means being a mediocre, 35-year-old, graduate student unable to finish his dissertation. They barely connect anymore.
  • That same night, Shukumar prepares dinner for the two of them (he does the cooking) while Shoba showers. Since the blackouts will occur during dinner, Shoba suggests candles. How sweet, right?
  • While Shoba showers, we learn from Shukumar that his wife used to be a total neat freak, Type-A kind of person (go figure—her job's a proofreader). Now, she's more of a slob. We also learn that Shoba used to do the cooking, but after the baby died, things changed.
  • In fact, when Shoba was pregnant, things were very romantic between the two of them. She did things like throw him a surprise birthday party, walk hand-in-hand with him. You get the picture.
  • The only person who has visited them since is Shoba's mom, who blames him for not being there for Shoba.
  • They don't have a candlestick holder so Shukumar ends up sticking the candles in the soil of a pot of ivy.
  • The candles are, by the way, birthday candles. Symbolism alert!
  • Shoba mentions the time when she was at a rice ceremony for a baby and how the baby cried the whole time, which, of course, gets Shukumar to think about their baby, who never lived to get a rice ceremony despite Shoba's preparations for one.
  • They continue to have dinner, and it's kind of uncomfortable—definitely not full of the chit-chat that close couples share. Clearly, Shukumar and Shoba have communication issues.
  • However, Shoba does talk about India a lot. That's because she spent a lot of time in India as a child. Shukumar, on the other hand, didn't.
  • Then Shoba gets an idea for a conversation starter: during the blackouts, each person shares one thing about him or herself that the other person doesn't know. Sounds innocent right? Just wait.
  • Shoba starts first and tells Shukumar that when she was alone in his apartment the first time, she looked in his address book to see if he had written her in (he hadn't).
  • Shukumar then tells about the time they had dinner at a restaurant and he forgot to tip the waiter, so he rode a cab all the way back to the restaurant just to leave a tip. Why did he forget? Because it was the first time he thought he might marry Shoba and so he got distracted. Go ahead; say "Awww."
  • The next night, the two of them seem eager to start their night together. He's worried that she'll drop a bomb on him, like she's had an affair or something. Instead, she tells him that she lied to him one night when his mom was visiting and she stayed out late with her girlfriend for a drink.
  • Shukumar, on the other hand, admits he cheated on his Oriental Civilization exam in college. Shoba cuddles up closer to him.
  • So each night, the two of them confess something to the other and they seem to become more intimate as a result. They get so intimate that they end up doing it. Normally, not a big deal for a married couple, but for these two, a very big deal.
  • On the fifth day, Shukumar gets a notice that says the rolling blackouts are ending, which puts a damper on their little game. Then Shoba tells him that she's moving out. Shukumar realizes she's been trying to tell him all along and the game was her way of doing that.
  • Shukumar gets back at her and in a big way. She had never known the sex of their baby and had never wanted to know. She thought they were lucky not to have known, but little does she know that Shukumar had actually arrived at the hospital in time to hold their dead baby boy before he was cremated.
  • Shukumar had vowed never to tell Shoba because he loved her back then.
  • So guess what? You got it. Shukumar tells her—nay—describes to her what their baby boy looked like.
  • Shoba reacts by turning off the lights and crying. The story closes with Shukumar sitting next to her and doing the same. We don't blame them; talk about a downer.

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