A Temporary Matter

by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215

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. Shoba comes into the kitchen as the electricity goes off and the lights go out. She says that the kitchen looks lovely and reminisces about power outages in India. She tells Shukumar that at family dinners at her grandmother’s house, when the electricity went off, ‘‘we all had to say something’’—a joke, a poem, an interesting fact, or some other tidbit.

Shoba suggests that she and Shukumar do this, but she further suggests that they each tell the other something they have never revealed before....

(This entire section contains 1215 words.)

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Shoba begins the game, telling Shukumar that early in their relationship she peeked into his address book to see if she was in it. Shukumar reveals that on their first date he forgot to tip the waiter, so he returned to the restaurant the next day and left money for him.

The next evening, Shoba comes home earlier than usual. They eat together by candlelight again. Then, instead of each going to a different room, Shoba suggests that they sit outside, since it is warm. Shukumar knows that they will play the game again. He is afraid of what Shoba might tell him. He considers but then discounts several possibilities: that she had an affair, that she does not respect him for still being a student at thirty-five, or that she blames him for being away when she lost the baby.

Shoba tells Shukumar that she once lied to him, saying that 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. Shoba takes his hand, and they go inside.

The next day, Shukumar thinks all day about what he will tell Shoba next. 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. The sweater was a gift for their third anniversary, and Shukumar was disappointed because he thought it unromantic. 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. They then sit together on the sofa and kiss.

The fourth night, Shoba tells Shukumar that she does not like the only poem he has ever had published. He tells her that he once tore a picture of a woman out of one of her magazines and carried it with him for a week because he desired the woman. They go upstairs and make love.

The next day, Shukumar goes to the mailbox and finds a notice that the electric repairs have been completed early. Shukumar is disappointed, but when Shoba arrives home she says, ‘‘You can still light the candles if you want.’’ They eat by candlelight, and then Shoba blows out the candles and turns on the lights. When Shukumar questions this, she tells him that she has something to tell him and wants him to see her face. His heart pounds. He thinks that she is going to tell him that she is pregnant again, and he does not want her to be. She tells him, instead, that she has signed a lease on an apartment for herself.

Shukumar realizes that this revelation has been her planned ending for the game all along. He decides to tell Shoba something he had vowed to himself that he would never tell her. Shoba does not know that Shukumar held their baby at the hospital while she slept. Shoba does not even know the baby’s gender and has said that she is glad that she has no knowledge about the lost child. 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, and each of them cries because of what the other has revealed.