Husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba are notified that their electricity will be turned off at 8:00PM for five evenings in a row in order to fix a power line. Shoba tells her husband this news. He looks at her, noticing that her makeup has run from her time at the gym. He reminisces about how she would look in the morning after a party in happier times. Shoba insists that the electric company should work on the lines during the day. Shukumar takes slight offense at this idea; since January, he has worked at home on his dissertation. The outages begin that evening.
Six months earlier, Shoba went into labor prematurely when Shukumar was attending a conference out of town. Shukumar remembers the station wagon cab that took him to the airport. For the first time, the images of parenthood that flashed through his mind – Shoba handing out juice boxes to their children in the back seat of their own station wagon – were welcome. While out of town, Shukumar was alerted of the labor complications, but by the time he arrived at the Boston hospital, their child had died.
Lately, editor Shoba spends more time at work, leaving before Shukumar wakes and coming home late. Shukumar had been granted more time to work on his dissertation, but he finds himself unable to work. He and his wife have become strangers, experts in avoiding one another. A half an hour before the lights are due to go out, Shukumar continues cooking their dinner while Shoba showers.
Reminded of a dentist appointment, Shukumar brushes his teeth with a toothbrush purchased long ago in case of overnight guests. Shoba was always prepared for what might happen. Groceries were purchased in bulk, Indian chutneys and marinades were prepared on the weekend, and dishes frozen for future use. A lavish feast could be whipped up on a moment’s notice. Now, Shukumar was working his way through their provisions, cooking dinner each evening just for the two of them to eat separately – Shukumar in the study that was to become the nursery and Shoba in front of the TV with her editing assignments spread out in front of her. Shukumar pretends to work when Shoba comes to visit each night, forcing herself to enter the room. Tonight, in the dark, would be the first time they ate together in months.
Shukumar finds a half-empty box of birthday candles leftover from a surprise party Shoba had thrown for her husband last spring. At the party, she held his hand all night as they chatted easily with friends they now avoid. The only visitor they’d had since their baby died was Shoba’s mother, who somewhat blames Shukumar for his child’s death. Shukumar sets the table with a potted ivy to hold the candles and glasses of wine. Just as the meat is ready, the house goes dark.
When the power would go out while visiting relatives in India, Shoba’s family would share jokes or poems. Shoba suggests they tell each other secrets in the dark. First, she confesses that when they began dating, she looked for her name in his phone book the first time she went to his apartment. Shukumar tells Shoba that he forgot to tip the waiter on their first date. He was distracted by the thought he might marry her.
The next night, Shoba comes home earlier so they can eat together before the lights go out. When they lose power, they decide to sit outside in the unseasonably warm winter night. Shukumar wonders what Shoba will tell him since he feels they know everything about each other. Shoba shares first. When Shukumar’s mother came for a visit, she lied about working late and went out for a martini with her friend Gillian instead. Shukumar remembers the visit, his mother still in mourning for her husband twelve years after his death. Without Shoba there to say the right things, Shukumar felt awkward with his grief-stricken mother.
Shukumar admits that, fifteen years ago, he cheated on an exam. His father had died only a few months earlier. Shoba takes his hand. They sit outside until the lights come on and then retreat to their home, still holding hands. Without speaking about it, their time in the dark turned into an exchange of confessions about how they had hurt or disappointed each other or themselves. On the third night, Shukumar tells Shoba that he returned the sweater vest she had given him for their third anniversary. He exchanged it for cash and got drunk in the middle of the day. She tells him that she once let him speak to the chairman of his department with food on his chin. On the fourth night, he admits he kept a picture of a woman torn out of a magazine in his wallet while Shoba was pregnant. The desire for the unknown woman was the closest he ever came to infidelity. Shoba tells him she never liked the only poem he had ever published.
Shukumar and Shoba are able to be intimate in the dark. On the third night, they kiss and on the fourth night, they make love. The next day, they receive a notice that the power line has been repaired ahead of schedule. It is the end of their game. Shoba suggests they still light candles and eat by their glow. After dinner, Shoba blows out the candles and opens a second bottle of wine. She turns the lights back on, telling Shukumar that she wants to see his face when she tells him her biggest secret. Before coming home that evening, she had signed the lease on her own new apartment. Shukumar is relieved but sickened. Shoba had been preparing for a life without him and the game had been proposed so she could work up her nerve to break the news to him.
It is Shukumar’s turn to speak and he decides to confess something he swore he’d never tell. When she was pregnant, Shoba wanted the gender of their child to remain a surprise until birth. When the child died, she did not know if they had lost a son or daughter. Shoba took refuge in that mystery, spared of that knowledge. When Shukumar arrived at the hospital, Shoba was asleep. The doctor suggested he hold the child before it was cremated in order to begin the grieving process. Shukumar recoiled, but then agreed. He tells Shoba that he held their son. He describes what the child looked like, how his fingers were curled just as hers curl in the night.
Shukumar takes their plates to the sink, leaving Shoba alone in the living room. He watches their neighbors walk arm in arm and the lights suddenly go out. He turns to find Shoba at the light switch. They sit together and weep for their new knowledge.
A Temporary Matter is a story about grief and the secrets people keep from one another. Husband and wife Shukumar and Shoba are reeling from the loss of their child six months earlier. They avoid each other and their friends, Shoba filling her time with work and Shukumar procrastinating in finishing his dissertation. A deus-ex-machina in the form of systematic power outages allows for intimacy between the couple not achieved since the death of their son.
The importance of communication within a marriage is a prevalent theme in Interpreter of Maladies. Here the sorrow of the lost child causes a communication breakdown in the relationship of Shukumar and Shoba. This silence between them eventually destroys them because, in their grief, Shukumar and Shoba grow to become different people. Since they no longer share experiences, the couple grows apart. Their final secrets are painful ones – Shoba intends to move out and Shukumar violates the wishes of his wife by revealing the gender of the child. Secrecy eventually leads to broken trust. Ultimately, it is the baby who will never cry who tears the two apart.
A Temporary Matter is told from the third-person perspective of Shukumar. Though the narrator is omniscient, we understand the events in the story through his experiences. The story unfolds largely in memory as each item Shukumar touches triggers a memory to a happier time in the couple’s life together. For instance, the birthday candles used during the blackout remind him of a surprise party Shoba threw for him. Only through Shoba’s confessions do we fully appreciate her point of view in this story about the end of a marriage.
Environment plays a key role in the story. The darkness is both a metaphor for Shukumar and Shoba’s relationship and a safe space for the couple to bond. Both have been groping around in the dark for the sense of normalcy that was destroyed by the death of their child. The planned blackouts force an intimacy that the couple hasn’t known for a long time. By the second day, they are so liberated by the darkness that they begin to anticipate it. Finally, they turn off the lights when the planned outages cease. Darkness ushers in intimacy, which allows the couple to make love for the first time since the child’s death. By the end of the week, the snow outside begins to melt. This thawing mimics the freedom both Shukumar and Shoba now feel from their grief. Though both are now in pain stemming from the end of their marriage, they are feeling once again.
Food, an important part of Indian culture, also plays a significant role in this story. Shoba’s trips to the market are exhilarating for Shukumar in the beginning of their marriage. In happier times, Shoba would prepare lavish meals and a particular gourmet cake for his birthday. Shoba would buy in bulk and prepare meals and chutneys that could be warmed and served in the matter of moments. In this way, their home was always open to others and always filled with love. After the baby’s death, Shukumar started running through the provisions prepared by Shoba. This is a symbol of their dwindling affections and the unpredictability of life. Ultimately, Shoba is unable to control or prepare for the worst.