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Interpreter of Maladies

Jhumpa Lahiri

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Interpreter of Maladies | A Temporary Matter | Summary



Shoba and Shukumar are a married Indian American couple living near Boston, Massachusetts. They are in their early- to mid-30s. Shoba works at a textbook publishing company, while Shukumar is a graduate student working on his doctoral dissertation. At the story's outset, the couple receive a notice telling them that their power will be cut every evening for five consecutive days because of electricity repairs.

It is soon plain that Shoba and Shukumar's marriage is in trouble. Six months ago, Shoba delivered a stillborn baby while Shukumar was attending an academic conference, to which she had encouraged him to go for professional advancement. Their grief has taken a heavy toll, and they find the emotional gulf between them widening.

Since their loss, for example, Shoba has been looking older than her years. The couple has been spending less and less time together, with Shoba finding excuses to take on extra projects at work. It seems to Shukumar that he and Shoba "had become experts in avoiding each other." They have not shared their evening meal for months. Intimacy has been rare. Shukumar's depression is such that he often does not pull himself out of bed until nearly lunchtime. The only guest they have had since the loss of the baby is Shoba's mother, who behaves politely but distantly. The married couple's grief and depression have upended traditional gender roles, both Indian and American—with Shoba emerging as the breadwinner and Shukumar staying at home, ostensibly to work on his academic project but frequently to mope and stay in bed.

At first it seems as if the power outage every evening offers the couple a fresh chance to bridge their emotional gap. They begin to experiment with confessing mistakes, disappointments, and indiscretions to each other. Somehow, the darkness in their apartment allows them to be more forthright. Shukumar, for example, admits that he once cheated on an exam. He forgot to tip a waiter at a restaurant. He cut out a picture of a lady from a magazine and saved it surreptitiously. Shoba confesses that she once allowed Shukumar to speak to the department chair while he had food on his chin. When Shukumar's mother paid a visit to commemorate the 12th anniversary of his father's death, Shoba went with her friend Gillian to have a martini while claiming that she had to stay late at work. Such an exchange of confessions seems to draw them closer together, and on the fourth evening of the power outages they make love.

The couple's new intimacy, however, is short-lived. The next evening, Shoba tells Shukumar that she has rented another apartment and will be leaving to lead a separate life. In return, he tells her a secret he has kept for six months. When he arrived at the hospital, he held their dead baby, a son, in his arms. After this final exchange of confessions, husband and wife then weep together.


The story's title, as often in Lahiri's fiction, bears close scrutiny. It ostensibly refers to the notice from the power company, informing Shoba and Shukumar that the power cuts will be "a temporary matter," lasting only five days for one hour a day. Readers may speculate more widely, however. Is the marriage of Shoba and Shukumar destined to be "temporary"? Or is their alienation, which seems unbridgeable at first, actually momentary and soluble in the end? The story provides no definitive answers to these questions, although Shoba's decision to rent a separate apartment suggests that her marriage to Shukumar has unraveled to the point that the two will go their own ways in the future.

In this portrait of increasing alienation and emotional depression, Lahiri includes a variety of subtle touches. For example, two brief flashbacks recount visits by Shoba's mother and Shukumar's mother. The visits are both parallel and contrasting. Shoba's mother has been the couple's only visitor since the loss of their stillborn child. She stays with Shoba and Shukumar for two months, cooking dinner every night. She is polite but not especially friendly to Shukumar. When he refers to the baby's death, she comments only, "But you weren't even there." Shukumar's mother, by contrast, visits the couple specifically to honor the memory of his father, who had died 12 years ago. Shukumar's mother also cooks, but she continues to be so upset about her husband's death that she cannot bring herself to eat any food. Death, and the reactions of family members to it, provide the context and the mood for both visits.

Lahiri's use of figurative language often contributes to tone and atmosphere in the story. For example, she metaphorically refers to the "arsenal of colored pencils" that Shoba uses to proofread her textbook files. Later on in the story, Shoba is said to sit in the living room "behind her barricade of files." The military connotations of these metaphors reinforce the couple's growing alienation.

Another technique Lahiri uses to increase reader interest and suspense in the story is ironic reversal. By definition, situational irony is a striking contrast between what we expect will happen and what actually happens in a narrative. It is ironic, for example, that the daily power cuts—presumably an annoying inconvenience for Shoba and Shukumar—actually result in a limited but significant improvement in their communication and involvement with each other as a couple. However, just when the reader might think their relationship may be on the mend, Shoba delivers a bombshell: she is moving out. Lahiri has, in effect, ironically reversed the ironic reversal.

Is this second reversal final, however? Although the mood at the story's end is somber, even tragic, it is worth noting that Lahiri does not close the door on the couple's reconciliation. In this sense, "A Temporary Matter" has an open-ended conclusion. Lahiri focuses on the couple's experience and their emotions, rather than on their final destiny.

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