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Symbol Makes the Reader Involve: A Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”

Updated on August 5, 2015

Symbol Makes the Reader Involve: A Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”

“A Temporary Matter” is a five evening’s story about two people who keep secret from each other. Husband and wife, Shukumar and Shoba, are trying get rid of the memory of losing their child six months ago. Food, the environment of the couple’s home (decoration of their home), darkness, candle, silence and pot plant are the object that represents Shoba and Shukumars’s emotion and situation prior to and after the stillbirth. Jhumpa Lahiri uses symbol that everyone can relate to their life in order to create a sense of attachment with the reader and convey them Shukumar and Shoba’s stained relationship.

Before entering into the discussion on use of symbolism in “A Temporary Matter” it is important to reminiscent that “Jhumpa Lahiri is a London-born second generation expatriate” (Chaudhury, 15) because her characterizations and use of symbolism in “The Temporary Matter is unseparatable with her diasporic life”. She is the first person of South Asian origin who got Pulitzer Prize on 10th April, 2000 for her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. Her stories chronicle of East Indian Diaspora, focus on people to people relation and their emotion from the experience of her diasporic life. In the first short story, “A Temporary Matter”, she portraits Shukumar and Shoba who lived in Boston, who came from East India.

The short story starts with a hollow environment in this small family; husband and wife can’t reach to each other and the story is written on the Husband, Shukumar’s perspective. In the beginning of the story Shoba, the wife, come from a gym but her cranberry lipstick was visible “only on the outer reaches of her mouth, and her eyeliner had left charcoal patched beneath her lower lashes.” (Lahiri, 1) Generally outer reaches lipstick of someone’s mouth represents that that woman kissed someone or she is not care about her beauty anymore. Shukumar assume seeing displacement of lipstick and eyeliner as her carelessness in this story as an observer. The story starts with the observation of a depressed husband who cannot write his dissertation from six month ago and who is spending his time by observing his wife’s and their home’s present situation.

Shukumar explains that Shoba and Shukumar living at the same house and they have been bored to act that they both are happy in front of themselves. Their boredom and carelessness speaks with potted plant language, “Even though the plant was inches from the tap, the soil was so dry…” (Lahiri, 10) In general, potted plant is used to create liveliness in a house. Dry potted plant represents the dryness of life of the small family. Here, Jhumpa Lahiri uses dry potted plant object to represent the present situation of their family life where Shukumar and Shoba’s heart are becoming dry day by day without nurturing and practicing love.

After explaining a hollow situation and noticing the dryness of their heart Shukumar illustrate the flashback of their happy past where Shoba was careful about each section of their house. “She used to put her coat on a hanger, her sneaker in the closet” that introduce their previous happiness when Shoba was not slapdash. (Lahiri, 6) To illustrate their happiness he explains about food that represents Shoba’s involvement in the family. In “A Temporary Matter” food is the one of the important symbol that represents the overall emotion of the Indian American couple Shukumar and Shoba’s before and after the death of their baby. The representation of food is not a new idea in literature because “For Kessler” food in great fiction, “open doors to double and triple meaning” (156).” 69 Moreover, food is a part of everyday life and it is an important part of Indian culture also. Williams elaborate about the use of food in Asian American literature “food as metaphor frequently constructs and reflects relationships to racialized subjectivity and also addresses issues of authenticity, assimilation, and desire.” (70) Therefore food makes an environment by which reader can attach them into the story.

Shoba is always calculative and can think ahead that makes astonished Shukumar. She always bought a lot of food that “they invariably marveled at how much food they’d bought.” (Lahiri, 7) The plenty of food is the symbol of Shoba’s mental state. Shukumar went with her in the super market and “watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one.” Plenty of food, they stocked up for future- that represents the relationship would last down through the generations. Moreover artichokes, plums, gingerroot, yams provide the reader different test to know the Indian American couple. Shukumar and Shoba had a nice family life. They were going to have a baby and food represents the preparation for their new coming baby and their early happiness of their family life.

The dark part started of this family after the death of their stillbirth. After the death, Shoba stopped shopping and gradually they have eaten through all reserves. Diminishing stock represents the effect of Shoba’s interference into the family. What darkness resemble by and large? Darkness is a confused situation where unable to find out any way. It is related to fear, suffocation, hesitation, uncertainty, tension, depression. Shukumar and Shoba were trying to avoid the death of the stillbirth from their memory. By avoiding the traumatic memory, they have been subconsciously avoiding each other. Not only they are avoiding each other but also they have been avoiding themselves too. “…nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead, he thought of how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in three bed room house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible.” This avoiding resembles with darkness in this story. Five days load shading shows their unconscious internal darkness, avoidance, hesitation, fear, uncertainty, depression of their relation. After the death of the baby they detach from one another and from themselves too. They were trying to get rid of this suffocation but like in darkness it is difficult to find any way and thus they were also lose their way in the puzzle of the darkness of their relation.

After a long observation about their past and present situation of Shoba and him Shukumar tried to light up birthday candle in front of Shoba into the darkness of their relation because Shukumar was always a consumer and Shoba was the energy provider in this family. Shukumar believes that one who can light up the family that is Shoba. The birthday candle is reminded about celebration, festival, merriment, joy, pleasure, and dream for new days within any person. Jhumpa Lahiri uses the symbol birthday candle to connect the personal experience of dreaming new days of the reader to get involve into the emotion of Shukumar. Shukumar takes over cooking in the blackout from the reserved food that emerging hope again in the possibility of reviving the marriage again and he light up the candle in the middle of the table. After a long time “they would have to eat together.” They started to eat and they serve themselves. “Every few minutes Shukumar lit a few more birthday candles and drove them into the soil of the port.” Again and again lighting up the candle represents the eagerness of Shukumar to bring light of happiness through Shoba. Candle represents here the only source that brings the light of happiness in this family.

Not only Shukumar light up in front of Shoba he also celebrate their togetherness with a bottle of wine. “He clamped the bottle between his knees while he turned in the corkscrew … and so he picked up the glasses and held them close to his lap while he filled them.” A bottle of wine represents the western celebration. Though Shukumar and Shoba are East Indian origin people but Jhumpa Lahiri makes them celebrating their togetherness with western style. Here, Jhumpa Lahiri exposes Shukumar and Shoba’s diasporic life where she represent that their emotion are not confined only in East Indian anymore. The serving wine represents that Shukumar and Shoba’s relationship is not based on Indian culture, it gets mixed with western culture. Therefore, Shoba is not trying to solve their relation like Indian wives. In “The Temporary Matter”, the wine bottle explains the subjectivity of Shukumar and Shoba’s relationship.

Though he tried to light up in front of Shoba but Shukumar hide himself inside the Ivy pot plant to conceal his sorrow from Shoba because he still loves her and he does not want to hurt her. He is hiding himself from Shoba from a long time. He stayed the house that they decorated for their child before it born where Shoba rarely go. “In January, when he stopped working at his carrel in the library, he set up his desk there deliberately, partly because the room soothed him, and partly because it was a place Shoba avoided.” (8) Shukumar has a secret about the baby. Though he also have the same pain inside his heart but he cares about Shoba and thus he afraid to disclose the secret to Shoba because he thought that the secret makes Shoba disappointed. He was gradually unrevealing himself from her too due to unraveling the secret from her. “At some point in the evening she visited him. When he hears her approach he would put away his novel and begin typing sentence.” Jhumpa Lahiri keeps suspense between Shoba and Shukumar within the secret. Thus Lahiri hides Shukumar inside the pot plant to make suspense to the reader. “He pushed the blazing ivy pot to the other end of the table, closer to the piles of books and mail, making it ever more difficult for them to see each other.” Hiding inside the pot plant represents the lack of interest in shares environment in this story between Shoba and Shukumar.

Again in dim light and shade plays mysticism between Shoba and Shukumar. Every mystery is created in light and shade environment. In “The Temporary Matter” the mystery happened in this environment and the mysticism happened in the dim light; they started to disclose themselves in front of each other. Shoba told him that she searched her name in his address book without telling him and other secrets. On the other hand Shukumar told her about the magazine girl by whom he was infatuated and other secrets. Chaudhury said, “Confession of each other’s guilt was not all that couple did but they also engage themselves in some amount of love making they had long forgotten.” (16) By confessing themselves they are becoming losing their inner pressure that they bear a long time from six months. If there is light they cannot disclose themselves because they lose the transparency between themselves. The author represents mysticism by light and shade environment in this short story where the mysterious confession happened between Shoba and Shukumar.

Though confession makes a bridge between them but they cannot walk on the bridge on the dim light. Again Silence and darkness plays bliss for their relation after the dinner because at the same time they can hide themselves and they can feel themselves in silence and darkness. Shoba start to the bridge in the darkness by touching Shukumar’s hand not only for consoling but also for sharing feeling between them. “Somehow, without saying anything, it had turned into this. Into an exchange of confession – the little ways they’d hurt or disappointed each other, and themselves.” Silence is such thing that sometimes it does not make any sense and sometimes it makes a huge sense. The extreme feeling that cannot be expressed by words is expressed in silence. Silence is the mediator in this short story. After dinner of the third and forth night they become more closer with the help of the mediator silence and darkness. “The third night after supper they’d sat together on the sofa, and once it was dark he began kissing he awkwardly on her forehead and her face.” By closing their eyes and the “forth night they waked carefully upstairs, to bed, feeling together for the final step with their feet before the landing, and making love with a desperation they had forgotten.” And at last they wept together on the darkness and silence after disclosing the main secret that Shukumar went to the hospital and touch their boy. The silence and darkness does not always mean nothingness, hesitation and fear, the silence mean something more that cannot be spoken by words; that information is conveyed to the reader by Jhumpa Lahiri.

Representation by theme and object to connect the reader more into the literature is not a new idea and Jhumpa Lahiri uses them and object symbolism to communicate with her reader their life and Shukumar and Shoba’s life. Sometimes same symbol mean differently that shows Lahiri’s creativity of explanation the emotion my symbolism. In “The Temporary Matter”, East Indian diasporic subjectivity, sadness, happiness, hesitation, fear and many things is represented by using symbol that plays in everyone’s life and thus the reader easily connect themselves with the short story.

Work Citation:

Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. Harper Collins Publishers India, 2008. Print

Williams, Laura Anh. “Foodways and Subjectivity in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies.

MELUS 32.4 (2007): 69-79. Print

Chaudhury, Avishek. “Darkness Is Bliss: A Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s A Temporary Matter”. ISSN 2.3 (2013). 15-18. Print


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