Shukumar’s Struggle

Analyzation of point of view in A Temporary Matter

There was once a man who did a great deed for God, so God told him he could have anything he wanted that was within reason. He asked, “Oh my dear God, could you build me a highway that went from California to Hawaii?” and not surprisingly God replied “No my dear son, that is very unreasonable.” The man was disappointed, but said he understood. Then he asked, “Could you grant me the ability to understand women?” God paused for a minute, as if he was in deep thought. He replied, “How many lanes did you want on that highway?”

It is not by accident that A Temporary Matter is told in the point of view of Shukumar. His inability to understand his wife and their relationship, or at least what was left of it after the symbolic death of their first stillborn child, serves as the foundation for his struggle. The story details a journey of flashbacks, introspection, and romantic gestures that are seemingly futile in the end with Shoba’s ultimatum.

Shukumar repeatedly delves into his past to explain his situation in the present. It effectively gives context to a disintegrating marriage that initially seems very peculiar to the reader. Instead of using the flashbacks as literal context, author Jhumpa Lahiri uses subtextual methods to describe how Shukumar feels. The flashback to the cab shows Shukumar’s feelings of being “cavernous compared to their own car” and evoked a sense of emptiness because “Although [Shukumar] was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat.” The flashback ends with his discovery of the stillbirth.

This impactful and dark memory leads the reader to consider the two’s avoidance in the house and the dreading of weekends, that Shukumar describes, as nothing out of the ordinary, in fact a normal happenstance. At one point in the story, Shukumar notices his wife’s new lethargic habits, triggering a memory of how things used to be with Shoba, of how she used to be overly prepared, and in a permanent mode of home improvement. He remembers how “She wasn’t this way before. She used to put her coat on a hanger, her sneakers in the closet, and she paid bills as soon as they came. But now she treated the house as if it were a hotel… the back of the house, a crisp white bag still sat on the wicker chaise, filled with lace she had once planned to turn into curtains.” This represents Shukumar’s gradual realization that his wife is giving up on their relationship. The flashbacks from Shukumar’s point of view provide a backbone to the story, and aid the reader to understand his situation while struggling along with him.

Throughout the story, while Shukumar tries to unravel the mystery that is his wife and their relationship, he learns about himself, and these introspections make up a crucial part to the story. During the few nights of darkness, Shukumar talks about his wife’s reluctance in the relationship, but repeatedly mentions his own apprehensions. One of many times is when he realizes that “he was suddenly irritated that he couldn’t go upstairs and sit in front of the computer” and avoid her presence. Another instance is how “he’d come to dread [the] time in the day she sought him out.” There is a moment in the story when Shukumar makes a realization from a flashback that, perhaps, doesn’t fit into the flow of the story: the interjection of the anecdote of his mother-in-law’s visit. The purpose of including such details in the story seems redundant, but it is most likely Shukumar’s way of expressing his guilt for his lack of presence and role in the stillborn birth. His mother-in-law of few words is a mouthpiece for his own troubling thoughts and feelings. She makes a powerful point by simply stating that “you weren’t even there.” But perhaps the most revealing of his realizations was the one at the end of the story that he discovered when Shoba admits that she has found an apartment and was planning to move out. Something she has been trying to tell him all week. It is the realization that his love for her was in the past tense. That he had “loved her then.” It is at this time that he loses all consideration for her and reveals the ever controversial gender of their baby. The worst secret to tell of all.

There is a saying that states that “ after the uphill climb, there is always a downhill on the other side.” In A Temporary Matter, this wasn’t the case. Lahiri does not follow the usual story structure where after the climax, there is a resolution. To put more simply, Lahiri leaves readers hanging. The story is much like a crescendo, with its gradual rise throughout the entire story and then a peak or climax at the very end. This is one of the stories most unique attributes and is what makes it such an enticing read. So the question remains of whether the couple gets together or not. The answer to this in the fact that Lahiri chose to end with the revelation of Shukumar’s time spent with the stillborn child. This revelation is told in spite of the wife and not meant to be a shared moment of grieving love. This is clearly implied by this excerpt, brought up once again, that, “he promised himself that day that he would never tell Shoba, because he still loved her then, and it was the one thing in her life that she had wanted to be a surprise.” If he had even a shred of compassion left for Shoba, he would not dropped such a bombshell. After this confession, he watches the elderly couple walk off in the distance signifying the end to their tumultuous relationship.

An advantage of having a character’s point of view is that the reader has complete transparency. The reader can access the characters thoughts, memories and words they speak; in A Temporary Matter, Shukumar’s actions also say a lot and give very valuable insight about the situation. Throughout the story, Shukumar’s most notable actions are majorly feeble but romantic gestures, such as cooking, which is a major part to the story, has more meaning than the basic preparation of food for sustenance. It is interesting that in the Indian culture, cooking is not only a practice done for the purpose of replenishing one’s health, but also for the rejuvenation of the mind and soul. This spiritual approach to cooking is called Ayurvedic cooking and has specific guidelines that are adhered to by many Hindus. When the story starts off, Shukumar is cooking lamb. Lamb falls under a category of Aryuvedic cooking called Tamas. Tamas represents inertia, resistance and the need to stop. In the story, the act of “adjusting” of the pan “so only the slightest bit of steam could escape” while cooking lamb foreshadows the gradual and eventual downfall of Shukumar and Shoba’s already fragile marriage. It is Shukumar’s actions in this story that can speak louder than words.

It is evident that a point of view from Shoba’s perspective fails to evoke the same effect that is demonstrated through the eyes of Shukumar. Jhumpa Lahiri’s use of his flashbacks, his introspection that is juxtaposed with the inspection of his relationship, and symbolic and romantic gestures give content and context to the story that Shoba’s point of view fails to provide. It is Shukumar’s journey to comprehend his wife and his relationships that is the story itself. If even God avoided the topic of women, one can only imagine Shukumar’s struggle.

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