Following on from our last video, D.D. Johnston looks at the opening to a modern classic short story: “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri. You can read the full story here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/lahiri-maladies.html
In our last video, I was discussing how to begin a story, and how prose writers – as distinct from film-makers – have a very brief window in which to catch their reader’s attention. Within the first paragraphs, you have to explain who and what the story is about, you have to pique your reader’s interest, and you probably have to give them a reason to care. Today, I want to look at the opening paragraphs of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” and consider why this opening works. Let’s have a look at the first paragraph.
The opening line reads, “The notice informed them that it was a temporary matter: for five days their electricity would be cut off for one hour, beginning at eight P.M.“ So immediately we begin with the event that interrupts the stasis, and it tells us what the story is going to be about – it’s a story about what happens during this power cut. So the story starts when it starts – Lahiri doesn’t start with a character walking or home or watching TV or redesigning the garden. She starts by explaining the transformation that sets the story in motion.
And she tells us, “The work would affect only the houses on the quiet tree-lined street, within walking distance of a row of brick-faced stores and a trolley stop, where Shoba and Shukumar had lived for three years.” So now we know who the story is about and where it takes place. We get from this description of place that the action will unfold in a more-or-less contemporary and realist suburban setting. And we assume that, because these people live together, they are most likely a couple. So by the end of the first paragraph, we already know that this is a story about Shoba and Shukumar, a suburban couple, and how their lives will be affected by these power cuts.
The second paragraph begins, “‘It’s good of them to warn us,’ Shoba conceded.” And this is an important piece of characterisation. It makes us like Shoba. Her reaction is generous, understanding. She focuses on the positives. She doesn’t rant and shout and moan and curse the bloody electric gits.
But something is wrong: “‘It’s good of them to warn us,’ Shoba conceded after reading the notice aloud, more for her own benefit than Shukumar’s. She let the strap of her leather satchel, plump with files, slip from her shoulders, and left it in the hallway as she walked into the kitchen.” There’s no “Hi, honey; how was your day?” We can immediately sense that there is some tension in this relationship. And so, crucially, the second paragraph introduces conflict.
Next, we get an introduction to Shoba: “She wore a navy blue poplin raincoat over gray sweatpants and white sneakers, looking, at thirty-three, like the type of woman she’d once claimed she would never resemble.” Note that this is only possible because Lahiri is using the third-person point of view. If it were a first-person account, Shoba couldn’t describe her own appearance. And note that Lahiri uses this sentence to tell us another important piece of information – how old Shoba is. Since we’re not told otherwise, we assume that Shukumar is in roughly the same age bracket.
And now, still focusing on Shoba’s appearance, we move into Shukumar’s perspective: “She used to look this way sometimes, Shukumar thought, on mornings after a party or a night at a bar, when she’d been too lazy to wash her face, too eager to collapse into his arms.” And this is a crucial line because it reinforces the conflict, the sense that things have gone wrong, and, crucially, it gives us a reason to care. Look how in love they used to be! What a tragedy!
Because, now, things are very different: “She dropped a sheaf of mail on the table without a glance. Her eyes were still fixed on the notice in her other hand. ‘But they should do this sort of thing during the day.’”
And now, here’s a superb line of dialogue: “’‘When I’m here, you mean,’ Shukumar said.” And something I love about this is that neither of them can be bothered to pursue this argument. It’s like it’s a battle they’ve fought so often, and they know how it would unfold, and they have no stomach for it. It’s like Ernest Hemingway said about a good story being like an iceberg, where only the tip is visible and a lot more lurks below the surface. We can imagine all the tension that lies behind this one line – the sense that Shukumar feels that his time is not equally valued by Shoba.
And this is brilliant: “He put a glass lid on a pot of lamb, adjusting it so only the slightest bit of steam could escape.” Good writers are always trying to do as much as they can with every sentence. Here, Lahiri introduces food, which is going to be a major trope in the story, but there’s also a symbolism to what Shoba does – he is literally letting off steam. Just a tiny bit. Just enough to stop the pressure bubbling over.
Next, we get a formal introduction to Shukumar. “Since January he’d been working at home, trying to complete the final chapters of his dissertation on agrarian revolts in India.” We learn what he’s been doing while Shoba’s at work, what he does that perhaps Shoba doesn’t fully value. And note the specificity – he’s not writing “a dissertation”; he’s writing a dissertation on agrarian revolts in India.
And there’s another example of specificity in the fifth paragraph, which begins, “‘It says March nineteenth. Is today the nineteenth?’ Shoba walked over to the framed corkboard that hung on the wall by the fridge, bare except for a calendar of William Morris wallpaper patterns.” Specifying that their calendar pictures William Morris wallpaper patterns helps to characterise them. We get a different impression of what these people are like than we would had we been told their calendar featured ice hockey players or bikini models.
I’m not saying this opening is perfect. In “She looked at it as if for the first time, studying the wallpaper pattern carefully on the top half before allowing her eyes to fall to the numbered grid on the bottom” we might question the adverb of manner ‘carefully.’ Can one study something in any other way? I’m not sure.
But this link is great: “A friend had sent the calendar in the mail as a Christmas gift, even though Shoba and Shukumar hadn’t celebrated Christmas that year.” One idea joins to another smoothly. And here, at the end of the fifth paragraph, Lahiri raises a question – she intrigues us. Why didn’t they celebrate Christmas that year? What happened? Note that she writes that they didn’t celebrate Christmas “that year.” It’s not that they just don’t celebrate Christmas because, for instance, they’re atheists or Hindus. They normally do but something happened.
And that thing is so awful that it can’t be easily spoken. It’s not until a few pages later that the question is resolved: Their “baby had been born dead.”
It’s a very powerful story, and if you haven’t read it in full, then I recommend you do. But the story is set up by these opening paragraphs. In these opening paragraphs, Lahiri gives us the key information – who, what, where, when. She gives us a reason to care – we lament their lost love. She brings the characters alive with specific detail. She introduces conflict and gives it depth. And she piques our interest by suggesting the tragedy that underlies this conflict.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses an image of Jhumpa Lahiri by Internazionale (https://www.internazionale.it/). It is covered by a Creative Commons license and licensed for non-commercial reuse.