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Existentialism in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Short Story “A Temporary Matter”


Existentialism in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Short Story “A Temporary Matter”


Sahadev Roy

State Aided College Teacher

Department of English

Dewanhat Mahavidyalaya

Cooch Behar, West Bengal, India


Ph. D. Research Scholar

Department of English

O.P.J.S. University

Churu, Rajasthan, India




Existentialism is a philosophical and literary moment which investigates the relationship between the inner self worth and the social self. It captures the essence of existence through interpretation of human life by examining freedom, singular and plural identities, and one’s role in a community. Through existential exploration, human life can be seen as struggled against alienation, dual identity, isolation and despair. Existentialism became a widespread movement in Europe. Thinkers from different fields drawn towards the doctrine of existentialism and the world witnessed a surge of new thought in philosophy, literature and art. This moment was forwarded by Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Jasper and Hegel. The ideologies of existentialism perfectly suit with the temper of the era. The devastation of war and brutality encountered by humanity during the World War created doubt on the contemporary political system. The horrors of the World War questioned the existence of God and the meaning of human life. This philosophy continued to reign for many years till modern writers like Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone de Beauvoir and Franz Kafka continued this tradition. In post-modern literature the trace of existentialism can be found in the works of Jhumpa Lahiri. This paper aims for an existential study of Jhumpa Lahiri’s one of the short stories “A Temporary Matter” from The Interpreter of Maladies.


Keywords: Post Modern, Existentialism, Meaninglessness, Authenticity, Freedom


This collection of stories named The Interpreter of Maladies and that the stories deal with human life and its predicament. In each story we find the characters live in complicated circumstances. Though the expressions may be ordinary but it has a great significance as far as the individual’s life is concerned. The versatile characters may hail from different stages of life yet the common thread that binds them all is the feeling of alienation and meaninglessness. In the introduction to the volume, Lahiri says, “stories tell of the lives of Indians in exile, of people navigating between the strict traditions they have inherited and the baffling new world they must encounter every day.” (3) This collection of short stories projects various such incidents of struggle. Though modern age gifted mankind with luxuries but it comes with issues like belongingness, existential crisis and identity crisis. The Story collection contains nine stories on such venerable human that struggles to cope with present and past.


The settings of each story have different themes and a distinguished plot. Lahiri is able to provide a variety of shades of alienation, facets of alienation and degrees of alienation. The characters are all trapped in a world where they do not belong whether it is a new land or a relationship or a lifelong misery. The story revolves around a character who finds difficult to accept or escape. The constant conflict is the common factor in all the stories in this collection. In the first story “A Temporary Matter’, the feeling of alienation hovered to a newly married couple. There was no major event occurred in the story but announcement of temporary power cut brought the couples attention towards each other. Lahiri used the power cut moments to reveal the inner conflicts and complexity of relationship between the characters .They tried to reconnect not only with the people surrounding them but also to reestablish their relationship with their roots. The story explores the traumatic relationship between husband and wife in a foreign land. It also provides details about the psychological changes between the couple who go through pain and anxiety.


The story “A Temporary Matter” unfolds the deep dark secrets of the married couple Shoba and Shukumar. Both are living under one roof but act like completely unknown to each other. Shoba works as an editor in a publishing house and Shukumar is a PhD student. Though they are married but they hardly communicate with each other. Life completely changed after the death of the first born baby. The death of the new born brought a distance between them. “But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude.” (Lahiri 5)


The scope of alienation presented in the story is versatile. Alienation doesn’t happen only on social or physiological level but it is deep rooted in the mind and psychology of an individual. Lahiri showed that alienation could manifest in different levels. In one story the feeling of alienation caused by the circumstances and the society the individual live in, in another it happens because both husband and wife failed to sympathize with each other’s pain and suffering. The catastrophic end of Shoba and Shukumar reveals that the elimination was created by them. They refused to confront or share the burden of their son’s death with each other. So the story ends with tears. Both of them were searching for sense of belongingness not only in the physical level but with their emotions.


In the contemporary approach of writing alienation is present in many forms such as psychological, sociological, emotional and physical in several texts written after world war. The theme of alienation emerged in many texts in literature. In post-colonial studies the theme of alienation can be found in American, European and Indo English literature. In the mainstream life man encounters emptiness in life due to disappointments, failures, loss and confusion. Shoba is an editor and Shukumar is a research scholar both them pursuing their goals in professional life but they failed as married couple. Shoba is character who is emotionally famished and failed to cope with the reality. She chose to be alone. Her present was attached to her past. All human relationships rests upon nourishing emotions and happiness but in this case Shoba and Shukumar’s marriage turned into an unpleasant reality of life. After the death of the child their life overpowered with sense of loneliness and isolation.


According to Erich Fromm the most significant alienation is ‘self-alienation’. Self alienation is absence of self-awareness or a complete loss of self-awareness. He discussed in his work ‘The Fear of Freedom’ (1941). He considers self-alienation pertaining to one feeling. In his book Sane Society, he defines the meaning of alienation is a process of filling in which anyone feel alienation from self (10). An alienated man not only alienates himself from the society but fails to find its own identity a place due to lack of self-awareness. Psychoanalyst Karen Horney explains itself and hated man as a spontaneous individual self is stunned, warped or choked, he said to be in a condition of alienation from him or alienated from self (11). He discussed the concept of i self-alienation another book called our inner conflicts. He explained that self-alienation is a state where person simply becomes oblivious to what he really feels, like Shukumar rejects, believes in sort of what he really is (12). He explains that the gap between the idealized image of a man and his real self-create alienation. Even the pride in own respectability alienates a man from his unsavoury past. (14)


Shoba and Shukumar lives entangled with the past events. Shukumar hesitated to be a father because he was still a student and never ready to take responsibility of the family. The death of the first born baby brought lot of sorrows to both of them. They constantly avoid each other. Shoba leaves early in the morning for work and comes back home late just to avoid her partner. On the other hand, Shukumar does not make any attempts to rekindle love with his wife rather he stays in the corner of the house where Shoba avoids going. The tragic event brought so much pain to them that they lost hope for any better life together. The deliberate attempts of getting distant from each other created a strong wall between the couple. Shukumar was so depressed that he does not get up early from bed till lunch time. Shoba takes extra project work so that she would devote more time at work and avoid going home early. 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. (Lahiri 8)


The story is told from a third person perspective of the character Shukumar and told largely through the memory of the character. Shukumar was always thinking of the happier time with his wife which is now destroyed. The indifferent attitude between the couple can be easily seen through the experience of Shukumar that the past happiness is long gone and they are suffering together in the present. For instance the birthday candles they used during the blackout reminded Shukumar of the surprise party arranged by his wife last year. They were a happy couple and both of them dreamed of a happy marriage in a different country but after to the death of their son both of them gradually grow indifferent attitude towards each other. They do not have the same passion to fulfil their dreams and desires. Both husband and wife were living like strangers. Shoba considered the house is like a hotel. She engaged herself in her work for long time so that she would spend more time outside. During dinner they serve food to each other without exchange of any words or glance. Both of them struggle to exchange their interested ideas prettier Shukumar gave up trying to provide happiness to his wife and learn to be silent. The growing silence among Shoba and Shukumar lead to communication breakdown. They no longer share their feelings and experiences. They are helpless entangled in a troubled marriage. Shukumar often think of past days when Shoba used throw surprise parties. Even Shoba’s physical appearance changed after the sudden loss of the child. It is not only the appearance but for Shukumar the reality has also changed. Shoba is no more cheerful or involved in any kind ceremony. But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. ( Lahiri 7)


Besides the indifferent attitude the couple showed towards each other, they wanted to escape from the relationship. Alienation is a condition of migrant life but in the story Shukumar and Shoba made a choice to alienate them. So Shukumar used to have a thrilled married life. But at present Sobha finds different works by the time Shukumar wakes up. These days Shoba was always gone by the time Shukumar woke up. He would open his eyes and see the long black hairs she shed on her pillow and think of her, dressed, sipping her third cup of coffee already, in her office downtown, where she searched for typographical errors in textbooks and marked them, in a code she had once explained to him, with an assortment of colored pencils.( Lahiri 4) Sobha started taking additional projects so that she would be busy in several works on the other hand Shukumar is willing to stay in the bedroom and work on his project. Gradually both of them became expert in avoiding each other. But nothing was pushing Shukumar. Instead he thought of how he and Shoba had become experts at avoiding each other in their three-bedroom house, spending as much time on separate floors as possible. He thought of how he no longer looked forward to weekends, when she sat for hours on the sofa with her colored pencils and her files, so that he feared that putting on a record in his own house might be rude. (Lahiri 5) Shukumar set up his desk in the room which Shoba avoids. Both of them stopped attending parties and get together. They deliberately wanted to avoid each other. Shukumar imagines – “As the cab sped down Beacon Street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments. He imagined himself gripping the wheel, as Shoba turned around to hand the children juice boxes. Once, these images of parenthood had troubled Shukumar, adding to his anxiety that he was still a student at thirty-five. But that early autumn morning, the trees still heavy with bronze leaves, he welcomed the image for the first time.” ( Lahiri 3)


Their views about marriage are a result of their backgrounds and conditioning. Shukumar who is deeply influenced by American culture didn't get deeply hurt due to the birth of the dead child. He believed that the trauma would pass and both of them can handle it wizard he thought that sober was only thirty three and they can have another baby in the future. Shoba was completely opposite to Shukumar the death of the child affected Shoba so much that she lost all interest in the marriage. Shoba’s mother who is a religious woman prayed twice for healthy grandchildren so the death of the child was a serious event in Shoba’s life is there faith on God was shaken.


In this story the sorrow of the lost child was such disaster that destroyed the relationship between Shoba and Shukumar. When Shoba was in the labour while Shukumar already alerted her of the labour complications but by the time he arrived at the Boston hospital, the child was already lost its life. After the death of the baby Shoba was so sad that she couldn’t even look at her husband. She thought that Shukumar didn’t care about her. She thought that their relationship is now cold without any emotions. So they became silent. As the silence began to grow which time they became distant.


The traumatic loss created such melancholy in their lives that they can’t see each other’s face and communicate. The electrical outage brought them together when they are comfortable speaking of their hearts in the darkness. Shoba dreamed of a happy family life with Shukumar in the new country and Shukumar dreamed of a successful professional and family life. Both quieted down in the new land because the all possibilities to make their dreams into reality are now grimed. Their world is shaken up with the miserable incident of the death of the infant. However the couple tried to rekindle their relationship during the blackout.


During the blackouts Shukumar and Shoba started exchanging secrets which is kept for a long time. They both become closer is they started to realize that sharing is the remedy for mending the loss of the relationship. So sharing the secrets became the medium of their pain exposure. “The first time he saw the picture he was lying in bed next to her, watching her as she read. When he noticed the magazine in the recycling pile he found the woman and tore out the page as carefully as he could. For about a week he allowed himself a glimpse each day. He felt an intense desire for the woman, but it was a desire that turned to disgust after a minute or two. It was the closest he’d come to infidelity.” (Lahiri 21) They try to cope with the loss by consoling each other. Each night they share different secrets and both hope to reconnect with each other to begin a new life but the couple’s effort to rekindle their marriage came to an end. With the final confession of Shoba they both realized that their marriage came to an end. “They weep for the things they now knew” ( Lahiri 24).


Shukumar confessed that he was disgusted as he had a picture of a woman from a magazine while Sobha was pregnant. Something happened when the house was dark. They were able to talk to each other again. The third night after supper they’d sat together on the sofa, and once it was dark he began kissing her awkwardly on her forehead and her face, and though it was dark he closed his eyes, and knew that she did, too. ( Lahiri 21) Both Shoba and Shukumar are the victims of their inner conflicts. In the darkness of the night they try to translate their pain to each other the deeply woman alienation is the existential angst between them. The couple has different value system that they have different approaches to face death. The build up a painful ambience around them is the failed to keep their emotions together. So he was hunted by the death of the infant. The happy moments are the only piece of memory that Shukumar used to play in his mind in several occasions. So we’re always sleeping too the past memories of homeland just two escape from the reality. Shukumar finds comfort in the past memories and sober finds comfort and thinking of her life in her homeland. Once, these images of parenthood had troubled Shukumar, adding to these images of parenthood had troubled Shukumar, adding to his anxiety that he was still a student of thirty five. “But that early autumn morning, the trees still heavy with bronze leaves, he welcomed the image for the first time.” (Lahiri 3)


In ‘Being and Nothingness -An Essay on Phenomenological ontology’ Sartre spoke about two kinds of being, being in itself and being for itself. Being for itself is common to all. On the other hand, being for itself stands for man when he claims his own freedom. True existence lies in the complete freedom. Sartre emphasised on the freewill and responsibility of an individual for its own development. In the story “A Temporary Matter” the Shoba and Shukumar are trapped in a bad marriage. They are trying to free themselves from the marriage. In search of complete freedom, Shukumar deliberately make attempts to stay away from Shoba. He confessed that he was so closest to infidelity that he tore a picture of a woman secretly to have a glimpse every day. 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. ( Lahiri 8)


Jhumpa lahiri attempted to show the depth of sorrow in Shoba and Shukumar. They are so trapped in the misery; they cannot face each other in the day light. But the darkness made them come closer. They started revealing thoughts and secrets to each other which were buried in their hearts for long years. Shoba revealed that she disliked one of the poems written by Shukumar. Shukumar confessed that he forgot to tip a waiter and he went back to the restaurant to tip him. But when the lights came back they failed to connect each other over dinner. Darkness was the channel through which they able to express themselves.


Towards the end of the story Shoba seems confused about her intention of living the house and she decided to end the marriage. She was searching for a separate house and finally she found one. Shukumar was trying to reconnect with his wife and attempt to make her comfortable. But it was tragic to hear his wife’s plan to leave the house. Shukumar didn't get a chance book convey his feelings about the tragic situation. He made efforts but he couldn’t save his marriage.


Soren Kierkegaard in his text ‘Either/Or’ (1987) introduced philosophical thinking called rotation method. Rotation method is a state of despair where means life is full of boredom. When boredom, despair and absurdity come together; man finds a strong desire for a meaningful life. If man doesn't find meaning and satisfaction in the life, he seeks for new experience. Like Shoba was looking for a house so that she would stay away from her husband. She tried to find peace through separation. But the separation brought disappointment and despair for both Shoba and Shukumar. Kierkegaard explains, the self is a relation that relates to it or are the relations relating self to itself in the relation (6). A human being is consecutively interpreted as synthesis denoting the relationship between, the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the internal, of freedom and necessity, in short a synthesis(6). Further, he defines the human soul is a relationship of the self that tries to find a balanced ratio in the relationship of fits a distance. It is a relationship to the finality, reality, to one’s self, to the human choice and freedom. If the self-created a relationship only with Infinity, it reaches a despair in which there is absolutely no finality at all. In this state of despair the self tries to escape itself. In this case the self appears to be selfish and it reveals in its one goal and ambitions and focuses only on the material and hedonic side of life where there is no place for spirituality and a deep understanding of one's existence or of one's own self (6). Sobha was incapable to deal with the frustration of losing the baby. She and her family had great expectations regarding the birth of the child. But the death brought disappointment. So she distant herself emotionally and psychologically from her husband is she thought Shukumar could have given her support. Shukumar confused about his knowledge about the babies sex which Shoba didn’t want to know. That confession broke Shoba. They fail to overcome the invisible barrier. Confused in the tormented situation they decided to get separated.


If the despair is conscious and man is the feeling consciously then the despair takes ultimate understanding of oneself of which Man becomes incapable to avoid. In the night during the blackouts, Shoba realised that she can no longer continue the critical relationship with her husband anymore with the constant avoiding and the grown silence created along gap that can't be reached. Both the characters experience such deep despair that they lost their own individuality.


Existentialists associated freedom with transcendence. Transcendence is nonachievable without freedom. Sartre described the situation to achieve such transcendence as ‘situationality’. Heidegger on the other hand used freedom and transcendence as identical. He says transcendence of the world is freedom itself (103) he further explained freedom as the condition of possibility for the disclosure of being of entities for understanding of being (102) so the question of being lies in the essence of freedom. The existentialists stressed on illumination of human existence when Man makes a choice, and the decision is to become free and take the responsibility of its own freedom as an individual. The life becomes authentic when the individual choose and be responsible for its own freedom. Shoba made a choice to get rid of prolong distressed relationship. Shoba was neither a loving wife nor a mother. She left her own country to fulfil her dreams to have happy married life but she didn’t find solace. The loneliness, loss of the child and the unsettling future didn’t give her hope for any promising future. Her life is not ‘authentic’ as she didn’t have any choice but to accept the boredom as way of life. Shoba was not free. Shoba’s decision was to move on from her stressed marriage is the first step towards achieve authenticity. She wanted to be her true self without her husband and without the burden of being a wife. “To achieve such freedom he must contradict himself and his essential nature to make the transit from despair to the true a sense of existence”. (Heidegger 102).


The leading existentialists’ primary concern is with authenticity. They deal with the concrete human existence far from abstract or speculative ideas. In such case the existentialists always deal with the seriousness of decision-making, freedom and the responsibility of a man .To experience of being. So to have the sense of authenticity as a living being one has to recognise that’s once life is the result of one’s choice and one’s own responsibility. Sartre and Heidegger both adopted authenticity and inauthenticity is fundamental notion off their philosophy. These two modes of living is a part of man's day to day life. The philosophers considered that an individual’s life is the result of consists authentic choices prettier is the value of choice helps in shaping once a distance thus the individual must take the decision and take the task of creating meaning in life. So Shoba’s journey to experience authentic life begins with her choice of living separately. Finally, She took the responsibility of her own freedom.


The post-modern era witnessed several emergences of culture, theories and field of studies in literature. So the wave of literature moved to different paths. English literature lost existential lenses to examine literature but the works of Jhumpa Lahiri holds the underlying themes of freedom, identity crisis, unresolved relationships issues and meaningless. She portrayed the unpredictable life with its rawness blending with words that highlights the reality faced the couple. Shoba’s longing for freedom, the boredom in relationship, Shukumar’s struggle to cope with the loss lead to detachment which cannot be repaired. They faced the ultimate reality of life that is death, in this case the death of their relationship. The pathos in the story is so forceful that it askes the meaning of such existence.


Works Cited


Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus. Penguin UK,  2013.


Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge, 2021.


Heidegger, Martin. Existence and Being, Ed.Werner Brock, Regnery, Chicago, 1949.


Horney, Karen.Neurosis and human growth: The struggle toward self-realization. Routledge,  2013.


Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or: A fragment of life. Princeton University Press,  2020.


Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of maladies: Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.