‘‘A Temporary Matter’’ was originally published in the New Yorker in April 1998 and is the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The collection won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a rare achievement for a short-story collection.
The story takes place over five days, beginning March 19, at the suburban Boston home of a married couple, Shoba and Shukumar. During this week, when they must cope with a one-hour power outage each evening, the grief and alienation that the two have suffered since the stillbirth of their child six months earlier builds to a climax.
The story opens with Shoba, a thirty-three-year-old wife, arriving home at the end of a workday. Her husband, Shukumar, is cooking dinner. Shoba reads him a notice from the electric company stating that their electricity will be turned off from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. for five consecutive days so that a line can be repaired. The date shown on the notice for the first evening of the outage is today’s date, March 19. The notice seems to have been mailed.
The narrator mentions that Shukumar has forgotten to brush his teeth that day and often does not leave the house for days at a time, although Shoba stays out more as time goes on. Then the narrator explains that six months earlier, in September, Shoba had experienced fetal death three weeks before their baby was due. Shukumar, a doctoral student, was in Baltimore for an academic conference at the time, having gone only at Shoba’s insistence. Shukumar often thinks of the last time he saw Shoba pregnant, the morning he left for the conference. As he rode away in the taxi, he had imagined himself and Shoba driving in a station wagon with their children.
By the time Shukumar had gotten news of Shoba’s premature labor and returned to Boston, their baby had been stillborn.
Now, Shoba leaves early each morning for her proofreading job in the city. After work, she goes to the gym. She also takes on extra projects for work that she does at home during the evenings and weekends. Shukumar stays in bed half the day. Because of the tragedy, his academic advisor has arranged for him to be spared any teaching duties for the spring semester. Shukumar is supposed to be working on his dissertation; instead, he spends most of his time reading novels and cooking dinner.
When Shukumar remarks that they will have to eat dinner in the dark because of the power outage, Shoba suggests lighting candles and goes upstairs to shower before dinner. Shukumar notes that she has left her satchel and sneakers in the kitchen and that since the stillbirth Shoba has ‘‘treated the house like a hotel.’’ He brushes his teeth, unwrapping a new toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom. This leads him to recall that Shoba used to be prepared for any eventuality. In addition to having extra toothbrushes for last-minute guests, Shoba had stocked their pantry and freezer with homemade foods. After the stillbirth, she had stopped cooking, and Shukumar had used up all the stored food in the past months. Shukumar also notes that Shoba always keeps her bonuses in a bank account in her own name. He thinks that this is for the best, since his mother was unable to handle her financial affairs when his father died.
The narrator explains that Shoba and Shukumar have been eating dinner separately, she in front of the television set, he in front of the computer. Tonight, they will eat together because of the power outage. Shukumar lights candles, tunes the radio to a jazz station, and sets the table with their best china....