Ephemerality and the Human Condition

Transience in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter”

The French philosopher Denis Diderot once said “So far as any rose can remember, no gardener has ever died.” It is a saying which eloquently illustrates the futility of believing in an immutable world. However, while we ridicule the rose for being limited to its perception, we fail to realize that we, too, are constrained by our mindsets. In actuality, what Diderot referred to as “the fallacy of the ephemeral” is an idea which even the most rational minds fall prey to. Often times, we become convinced that beauty, youth, and even love can last forever, even despite better judgement. It is this line of thinking which makes us forget that feelings are malleable. In “A Temporary Matter,” the opening story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 collection Interpreter of Maladies, the motif of transience enables the reader to understand that it is not love’s resilience to change which allows it to endure against time, but its power to adapt to change.

From the beginning of the piece, it is evident that the weather and the transitioning of seasons represents a shift into a new stage of Shoba and Shukumar’s relationship-a stage in which they can no longer avoid each other and must confront their growing qualms. For an example, in the exposition, it is revealed that “the last snowstorm” damaged an electricity line and that their power would be shut down each evening so that repairs could be made. This snowstorm interrupts the rhythm of their lives in the same way that Shoba’s miscarriage interrupts the prosperity of their marriage. While before the two are happy together and even imagine driving a station wagon to “cart their children back and forth,” since the loss of their baby they have instead “become experts at avoiding each other.” Instead of confronting how the miscarriage has affected their relationship, Shoba constantly works late while Shukumar remains in his office in the baby’s old room, where he knows Shoba will not enter.

In this sense, their actions have become the language by which they communicate their true feelings, a language more effective than words. Perhaps Shoba and Shukumar might have been able to continue evading each other, leaving their marriage in a fixed state of stagnation, but once the snow begins to melt, Shukumar no longer has an “excuse for not leaving the house.” Because the thawing snow forces Shukumar out of his rut wherein “nothing [is] pushing” him to leave the house, it is evident that the gradual change in the couple’s physical surroundings symbolizes how they can no longer pretend that their relationship is undamaged by their baby’s death.

In addition to their reaction to the changing environment, Shoba and Shukumar’s language of grief is also manifested in the way that they each behave in their own home. In Brittany Kemper’s dissertation, “The Language of Diaspora in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth,” Kemper writes :

“Lahiri’s stories emphasize the transience not only of a sense of
self dependent upon locale, but also of how a sense of self is always contingent upon a character’s ability to cope with and communicate with an ever-changing world.”

This inability to cope and communicate is prevalent throughout “A Temporary Matter.” For instance, when Shukumar thinks of how much he dreads staying in with Shoba on the weekends, he is reminded of how “he fear[s] that putting on a record in his own house might be rude.” Rather than being a considerate sentiment, Shukumar’s concern about disturbing Shoba exhibits how the two have become strangers to each other and how Shukumar feels like a guest in his own home.

In a personal essay for The New Yorker entitled, “Teach Yourself Italian,” Lahiri compares her experiences learning Italian to the Roman god Janus, who possesses two faces: one forward-looking and one backward-looking. While Lahiri’s gradual acquisition of Italian allows her to look to the future with a fresh start, Shoba and Shukumar’s unspoken language, spelled out in their actions, points them only to the past, to a relationship which no longer exists as it once did.

Head of Janus, Vatican Museum, Rome

The increasing detachedness between Shoba and Shukumar is made clear once more when Shukumar gets a new toothbrush from under the sink which is intended for visitors “in the event that [they] [decide]…to spend the night.” This minute detail reveals that Shukumar and Shoba’s time together truly is only temporary, for it suggests that their home is not a permanent fixture in their lives, but is instead merely a place through which they come and go. In a similar way, Shoba “treat[s] the house as if it were a hotel” and ceases to hang her coat up, put her shoes away, or pay the bills as soon as they come in. Her tendencies are not only indicative of the way she views their marriage-brief and unlasting, but also foreshadows her intention to leave Shukumar. Although they do not say it explicitly, their actions reveal that their failure to handle their misfortune is the impetus behind their separation.

In addition to this, the motif of transience appears again when even the food in their pantry, which they thought would be enough to“last for their grandchildren to taste,” steadily dwindles down to nothing. While before Shoba used to prepare extravagant meals, now it is only Shukumar who cooks, and his meals are only enough to last them a few days at a time. The declining food supply represents the slow death of their marriage as well as the lack of preparation each of them had for a marital crisis, especially in light of Shoba’s usual foresight. Even when the two dine together at night, “Shukumar set[s] out the plates and wine glasses they usually [save] for the guests,” which signifies the imminent end of their relationship by alluding to the idea that a guest’s stay must also end eventually.

Moreover, in the same way that both the snow and the couple’s feelings for one another gradually diminish, the recurring theme of ephemerality is also exhibited in the promises, lies and secrets the two tell themselves, for even these are destroyed when all truths are revealed. For an example, throughout the piece, it is clear that Shoba and Shukumar find refuge in the darkness, that it enables them to pretend that nothing is wrong. However, when the light is finally fixed and it is Shoba who turns it on, Shukumar insists upon “keep[ing] the lights off,” or continuing to live the lie that the baby’s death did not affect their marriage. Despite all his efforts though, Shukumar cannot evade the truth when Shoba tells him she is going to leave him, and the notion that he would be fine staying with her falls apart when he realizes that “he [i]s relieved” to hear her say this. Ultimately, not even Shukumar’s self-deceptions can endure against the reality that they have become different people.

A still from a student-produced adaptation of “A Temporary Matter”

Additionally, just as the two find solace in the dark, Shoba finds “refuge in [the] mystery” of their child’s sex. Consequently, Shukumar promises himself he will never tell her what he knows in order to protect her, but neither this promise nor the secret of the baby’s sex is kept when he later reveals to her that their child had been a boy. No matter how much either of them try, it is undeniable that the psychological barriers they have built cannot continue to shelter them from pain indefinitely.

In retrospect, the motif that all things are fleeting enables the reader to understand that Shoba and Shukumar’s relationship fails because they cannot overcome the obstacles which tested their love. As Kemper writes, “It is not beneficial…to control and define an ever-changing concept, especially when the concept itself is relative to ever-changing people and identities.” Likewise, the strength of one’s love should not be defined by his character at a certain point in time, but by the way he handles the adversities which challenge that love. Lahiri’s employment of this motif lends a depth of artistry to the piece which contributes to its overall cohesiveness. In this regard, Lahiri skillfully encompasses the tragedy of the human condition: unlike roses, which never live long enough to experience any variation in their brief garden life, people grow and evolve at every second as a response to the world. The better they are at adjusting, the better they allow themselves to bloom.

Works Cited

Dodd, Loudonn. “Janus Bifrons.” Vatican Museum. N.p., 27 July 2009. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

Fakufaku. “Roses in the Snow.” Flickr. Yahoo!, 02 Dec. 2012. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
“Fallacy of the Ephemeral” Fallacy of the Ephemeral. Oxford University Press, 23 July 2016. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “A Temporary Matter.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 12 Apr. 1998. Web. 10 Sept. 2016.

Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Teach Yourself Italian.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 01 Dec. 2015. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

Kemper, Brittany, “The Language of Diaspora in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth” (2011). ETD Archive. Paper 528.