Jhumpa Lahiri

A Temporary Matter

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A Temporary Matter Summary

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“A Temporary Matter” is a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri. Originally published in the New Yorker’s April 1998 issue, it is the first story of Lahiri’s 1999 debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies. The collection went on to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a rare achievement for a short story collection.

The story takes place over the span of five days in the suburban home of a married couple in Boston. Over the week, the couple, Shoba and Shukumar, must cope with a one-hour power outage each evening. This slight interruption in their daily routines works to bring their suffering over their stillborn child to the surface, the grief and alienation that the two have suffered over the last six months building to a climax.

Thirty-three-year-old Shoba arrives home at the end of her workday. Her husband, Shukumar, is cooking dinner. Shoba reads him a notice from the electric company stating that their electricity will be turned off every day from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. for five consecutive days so that a line can be repaired. Although the notice seems to have been mailed, the date shown for the first evening of the outage is today’s date, March 19.

Six months earlier, in September, Shoba experienced fetal death three weeks before the due date of their first child. At Shoba’s insistence, Shukumar had gone to a conference in Baltimore. Now, Shukumar often thinks back to the last time he saw his wife pregnant before leaving for the conference, and how he imagined driving in a station wagon with his little family.

Shoba leaves early each morning for her proofreading job in the city. After she finishes work, she goes to the gym. Shukumar, on the other hand, spends half the day in bed, sometimes not leaving the house for days on end. In addition to this, Shoba and Shukumar have started to eat dinner separately, she sitting in front of the TV and him at his computer. The power outage forces them to eat together by candlelight.

Shoba reminisces about the power outages in India, and how whenever they occurred at her grandmother’s house, everyone in the family had to tell a joke or a story. She suggests that she and Shukumar tell each other something they have never revealed before. Shoba begins by telling Shukumar that early in their relationship she peeked at his address book to see if she was in it. Then Shukumar reveals that on their first date he was so nervous and distracted that he forgot to tip the waiter. He returned to the restaurant the next day and left money for him.

The following evening, Shoba arrives home earlier than usual. Once again, they eat dinner by candlelight. Shukumar knows that Soba will suggest that they play the game again, and he wonders what she will reveal to him this time, thinking of several terrible secrets she might come out with.

In reality, Shoba tells Shukumar that she once lied and told him she had to work late when actually she went out with a friend. Shukumar tells her that he cheated on an exam many years earlier. He explains that his father had died a few months before and that he was unprepared for the exam.

Shukumar spends the entire next day thinking about what he will tell Shoba. That evening, he tells her that he returned a sweater she gave him as an anniversary gift and used the money to get drunk in the middle of the day. Shoba tells Shukumar that at a social gathering with his superiors from the university, she purposely did not tell him that he had a bit of food on his chin as he chatted with the department chairman.

On the fourth night, Shoba tells Shukumar that she is not a fan of his only published poem. Shukumar tells his wife that he once carried with him the picture of a woman that he cut out of a magazine because he was attracted to her. After he reveals this, the couple goes upstairs and makes love.

The next day, Shukumar finds a notice in the mailbox that says that their power will be restored early. He feels disappointed. Shoba says they can still eat by candlelight. She says she has something important to tell him. Shukumar’s heart is pounding in anticipation. Finally, his wife reveals that she has signed the lease on an apartment for herself.

Shukumar realizes that this revelation was planned from the moment Shoba suggested the game. Shukumar tells Shoba that the baby was a boy and goes on to describe his appearance in detail, including that the baby’s hands were closed into fists the way Shoba’s are when she sleeps. The two sit at the table together, each of them crying because of what the other has revealed.