The world that Jhumpa Lahiri creates in "A Temporary Matter" is one in which women are in charge. Women act; men react. This state of affairs is a reversal of traditional gender roles in India, the country from which both Shoba's and Shukumar's parents emigrated, and the United States. This role reversal gives the story a strongly modern feel. Although Shukumar hurts Shoba in the end by revealing a devastating secret, he is like a wounded animal whose lashing out is impulsive and, ultimately, ineffectual.
Both the author and the critics who analyze her work categorize Lahiri along with other female Indian American writers whose work deals with the cultural conflicts faced by immigrants and their children. But Lahiri's stories in general, and this one in particular, do not seem to grapple with cultural issues as much as with gender issues. The dynamic that drives "A Temporary Matter" is the interaction between an active woman and a passive man. It is the kind of situation that today's readers would find credible and compelling whether the characters were children of immigrants or descendants of the Pilgrims.
That Shoba and Shukumar are second-generation Americans of Indian heritage is incidental. They eat Indian food. And when a visit from Shoba's mother is recalled, readers learn that she is a Hindu. But these facts have no impact on how Shoba and Shukumar respond to the loss of their child or behave toward each other. The husband and wife could just as well eat Italian food or fast food, and the visiting mother might just as easily have been a Catholic or a Jew. Shoba and Shukumar are apparently divorced from the religion and traditions of their forebears. Far from struggling to balance two traditions, they have set themselves adrift from all traditions. They are thoroughly modern and secular, and their story could be the story of any educated thirty-something couple.
Freedom from tradition...