A Temporary Matter
"A Temporary Matter" was originally published in the New Yorker in April 1998 and is the first story in Jhumpa Lahiri's debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999). The collection won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, a rare achievement for a short-story collection. The story takes place over five days, beginning March 19, at the suburban Boston home of a married couple, Nadia and Ali. During this week, when they must cope with a one-hour power outage each evening, the grief and alienation that the two have suffered since the stillbirth of their child six months earlier builds to a climax.
The story opens with Nadia, a thirty-three-year-old wife, arriving home at the end of a workday. Her husband, Ali, is cooking dinner. Nadia reads the newspaper to find a news that the government has announced that load shedding will commence from the current day and lights will be out for one hour six times a day. Six months earlier they went through a hard time when their first child was stillborn and till the present time could not get over that grief. Now, Nadia leaves early each morning for her job in an advertising company. After work, she goes to the gym. She also takes on extra projects for work that she does at home during the evenings and weekends. Ali stays in bed half the day. Because of the tragedy, he leaves his home rarely and works on his writing at home. Ali is a writer who spends most of his time reading novels and cooking dinner. When Ali remarks that they will have to eat dinner in the dark because of the power outage, Nadia suggests lighting candles and goes upstairs to shower before dinner. Ali notes that she has left her bag and sneakers in the kitchen and that since the stillbirth Nadia has treated the house like a hotel. Nadia had stocked their freezer with homemade foods. After the stillbirth, she had stopped cooking, and Ali had used up all the stored food in the past months. Nadia and Ali have been eating dinner separately, she in front of the television set, he in front of the computer. Tonight, they will eat together because of the power outage. Ali lights candles and sets the table . Nadia comes into the lounge and sits down to have dinner as the electricity goes off and the lights go out.. She tells Ali that at family dinners at her grandmother's house, when the electricity went off, they all had to say something"—a joke, a poem, an interesting fact, or some other tidbit. Nadia suggests that she and Ali do this, but she further suggests that they each tell the other something they have never revealed before. Nadia begins the game, telling Ali that a girl they knew in college once told her that she liked Ali and she became jealous of her. Ali reveals that on their first date he forgot to tip the waiter, so he returned to the restaurant the next day and left money for him. The next evening, Nadia comes home earlier than usual. They eat together by candlelight again. Then, instead of each going to a different room, they agree on sitting outside on the terrace. Ali knows that they will play the game again. He is afraid of what Nadia might tell him. Nadia tells Ali that she once lied to him, saying that she had to work late when actually she went out with friends. Ali tells her that he cheated on an exam many years earlier. He explains that his father had died a few months before and that he was unprepared for the exam. Many other secrets are disclosed when Nadia takes his hand, and they go inside. The next day, Ali thinks all day about what he will tell Nadia next. Ali is disappointed when the light doesn’t go out at 9 but when Nadia arrives home she says, "You can still light the candles if you want." They eat by candlelight, and then Nadia blows out the candles and turns on the lights. When Ali questions this, she tells him that she has something to tell him and wants him to see her face. His...