Characters and Themes
«A Temporary Matter» is told from the third-person perspective of Shukumar, whose name means « Very sensitive » in Bengali. Shukumar is indeed very sensitive, and the death of his still-born child has had a tremendous impact on his life. Shukumar is a middle-aged man with an inferiority complex, as he is still finishing his thesis: « adding to his anxiety that he was still a student at thirty-five » (p.3). He is described by Lahiri as rather passive, lacking the capacity to think ahead and recover: « But nothing was pushing Shukumar » (p.4). Moreover, Shukumar seems to be waiting for something to happen in the relationship and the only thing he seems to do is to cook ( « the one thing that made him feel productive » p.8). Cooking can be associated with nurturing and caring, a role that is traditionally linked with women in Indian culture. The fact that Shukumar prepares the meal illustrates well the failing state of the relationship, that went from « meals that appeared to have taken half a day to prepare » (p.7) to microwaved lamb. But it also shows his concerns and love for Shoba, as he believes « that he and Shoba would get through it all somehow » (p.5). Shukumar takes the electricity shortage as an opportunity, believing until the end in their failed marriage, and incarnates the theme of miscommunication. Shoba is a middle-aged woman, whose life has been profoundly impacted by the death of her still-born baby.
The story constantly switches between her behavior before the incident and six-months after (the story’s present time). Shoba used to plan everything ahead and was always ready for any events: « she was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad » (p.6). However, she is not prepared for the loss of her baby, which causes her to lose faith in herself and in their marriage. Shoba was the pillar of the relationship, she was the one who nurtured both Shukumar and the house. She is also the working one in the couple, as she has a job in « her office downtown, where she searched for typographical errors in textbooks » (p.4).
The fact that she stops cooking, that she lets the house « die » (the plants are dry, the closets are disorganized and messy…) shows the failure of the marriage. Moreover, after the accident, she begins to treat « the house as if it was a hotel » (p.6), as a temporary place to stay before moving forward with her life. In opposition with Shukumar, she takes initiatives (such as starting the « game » and deciding to rent an apartment). The Bradfords are a married couple living next to Shoba and Shukumar. Their manners deeply contrast with those of Shoba and Shukumar, as they are always represented together (along with their dog) and seem to enjoy themselves. The image we get of them is of « a silver-haired man, […] a thin woman in a windbreaker, and holding a dog on a leash ». This is a stereotyped representation of an occidentalized and perfect couple. The image of the Bradfords is ironic, as they often appear in pivotal moments where we see the falling out of Shoba and Shukumar.
The motif of their togetherness is in opposition with the progressive separation of Shoba and Shukumar. Indeed, when Shoba reveals that she is leaving the house, Shukumar distinguishes the Bradfords « arm in arm » (p.22) in the warm afternoon. The Bradford’s marriage is the exact opposite of a temporary matter. Short Story Structure « A Temporary Matter », similarly to most of the stories featured in Interpreter of Maladies, begins in media res, as the main characters discover that there will be an electricity shortage, everyday during a week, for an hour. The short story then narrates the week that follows that announce, marked by the reflections of Shukumar, the narrative filter of the story. « A Temporary Matter » frequently shifts to the time before the incident, following Shukumar’s memories of both Shoba and himself. This allows the comparison between both their past and present selves, as well as the state of their marriage. The story can be divided into two different parts: the first one being a general presentation of their marriage and past, and a second part that narrates their meals during the electricity shortage. While the first part of the story is a comparison of what was their lives before and after the death of the baby, the second part features a renewed intimacy between the two partners. The meals that they share during the electricity blackout are part of the rising action in the short story but foreshadow their separation.
The negativity of the subjects evoked during the meals accentuate the foreshadowing: on the fifth night, Shoba reveals to Shukumar that she is leaving their home. This declaration has the effect of a bomb for the reader, which, influenced by Shukumar’s narrative lens, believed in an optimistic ending where the couple got back together. Shukumar replies to this declaration by revealing the sex of their baby, which was « the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise » (p.22), a declaration linked to the theme of preparedness of the story. Finally, the intrigue of « A Temporary Matter », like most of the short stories in the Interpreter of Maladies (such as « Sexy » and « Interpreter of Maladies ») is not clear. Although the reader can assume that the « temporary matter » was probably their relationship, there are no indications that they will not get back together, or vice-versa. Characterization Shoba is first described by Shukumar (the narrative lens) as « the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble » (p.1). This sets the tone of the story, where Shoba is but the ruins of her past self; for Lahiri, Shoba is someone who constantly rehashes the accident. Moreover, through the story, the author uses the past as a way to point out Shoba’s lack of nurturing qualities in the present (Shukumar is the one who cooks) compared to before the accident (Shoba cooked, took care of the house and bought food in abundance). Her first sentence « It’s good of them to warn us » (p.1) is meant « more for her own benefit than Shukumar’s » (p.1) which clearly shows that she is moving away from their relationship. Shukumar is the narrative lens of the story, and sort of occupies the role of the observer in « A Temporary Matter », as he stays rather passive, but keeps thinking about the past. Although he notices the signs of their falling out (they are avoiding each other, not talking…), Shukumar still believes that the relationship is viable and makes an effort to fix it during the power shortage. He seems to live in the past, constantly comparing Shoba to her past self.
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Crucial Physical Elements
Food is one of the prominent elements in the Interpreter of Maladies and each short stories treats it differently. In « A temporary matter », Lahiri explores the concepts of abundance and nurturing, two properties of food. In the short story, the couple no longer eats meal next to each other: food represents the intimacy that they shared before. The food Shukumar eats has also lost its nurturing properties « he’d taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause » (p.8). The fact that Shukumar is now cooking also shows that he is willing to cling to the relationship while Shoba wants to move on.
Food symbolize Shoba and Shukumar’s involvement in the situation. Moreover, the meals they share during the blackout symbolize this renewed intimacy through food. Ultimately, food is also connected with preparedness, a central theme of the story, as Shoba liked to prepare food cautiously and in advance, while now Shukumar prepares the meals just before time (« The microwave had just beeped when the lights went out » p.10). It could be said that in « A temporary Matter », the plot is entirely organized around the meals and food. Clothing is another element that is common to nearly all of the short stories in the Interpreter of Maladies.
The short story opens with Shukumar’s description of the clothes worn by Shoba, drawing out the conclusion that she looked « like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble » (p.1). This lack of care for her appearance contrasts with her past attention to detail and willingness to prepare for everything. Shoba used to organize her clothes and shoes neatly in the closet, while now she is not bothered by the piles of clothes lying around the house. Furthermore, Shoba now puts « her satchel and her sneakers to the side of the fridge » (p.6), which represents well her opinion of the house, that she treats as a hotel. Darkness, or the power shortage is also crucial for the plot of the short story and its atmosphere. The power shortage is the most important element of the plot as it allows the couple to renew their intimacy as well as to reach the climax of the short story. In the short story, darkness mainly allows Shoba and Shukumar to talk to each other again solving (partly) their miscommunication problem: « Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again. » (p.19). This darkness allows for more intimacy and honesty, so that they can share secrets without feeling vulnerable. While these blackouts are envisioned by Shukumar as a positive experience that may restart their relationship, they are in reality, a prelude to their separation. Although the couple has some honest discussions about their life together, most of them are about negative experiences, which may also hint at their falling out.
« Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had become expert at avoiding each other, in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible » (p.4). This quote is powerful because it expresses well the current sate of their relationship and situation. « It was typical of her. She was the type to prepare for surprises, good and bad » (p.6). The quote is ironic, because in the story Shoba is unprepared for the death of her baby. Altogether, this quote describes well Shoba and illustrates the theme of preparedness, which is crucial in the story. « Somehow, without saying anything, it had turned into this. Into an exchange of confessions – the littles ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves » (p.18). The quote shows the rising action of the short story, as well as the renewed intimacy of the couple. It seems to the reader (and Shukumar) that the marriage is still viable. « They wept together, for the things they now knew » (p.22). This quote is the conclusion of the story as well as of their relationship. It represents the failure of their marriage. Optional fifth quote: « He had held him until a nurse knocked and took him away, and 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 » (p.22). It can be inferred from this quote than Shukumar no longer loves Shoba and that he considers their relationship as over. Moreover, the theme of preparedness is also present in this passage, with an ironic meaning, as Shoba discovers the one thing she did not want to prepare for.