Writer of Color: Jhumpa Lahiri

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Photo of POC writer Jhumpa Lahiri from Knopf Doubleday

Quick Facts on POC Writer Jhumpa Lahiri

  • Born July 11, 1967 in London, England
  • True name is Nilanjana Sueshna “Jhumpa” Lahiri.
  • Writes short stories and novels
  • Received multiple degrees from Boston University including her MA and MFA

Biography of POC Writer Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri (JHOOM-pahh L-hee-ree) is the daughter to Bengali Indian emigrants. She was born in London, England and moved to the Rhode Island at age two.

In 1989, she received her BA in English Literature from Barnard College. She continued her education at Boston University, receiving her MA in English, MFA in Creative Writing, MA in Comparative Literature and Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.

Currently, she teaches at Princeton University as a creative writing professor. Her book,  Interpreter of Maladies, won a Pulitzer Prize.

 Before You Read Works by POC Writer Jhumpa Lahiri

A (Relatively) Brief History

  • 5500 BCE Indus Valley Civilization

The Indus Valley refers to the area shared between what is now Pakistan and Northwest India. So named after the Indus River, land in this zone is extremely fertile, making it proper for farming. (Remember your textbook studies back in the fifth grade about irrigation? It’s that same civilization.)

  • 1800 BCE The Indus Valley Civilization begins to decline. No one knows why, but historians think it’s because of rivers drying out, making it difficult to sustain an economy.
  • 1500 BCE A group of cattle-herders called the Aryans moved in from Central Asia. Some people think that the Aryans caused the demise of the Indus Valley Civilization.

From 1500 to 500 BCE, Aryan traditions are set. They used Sanskrit (their ancient language) to record the Vedas (their scriptures.) The Vedas are the basis of the Hindu religion. It is also what imposed the caste system. Because the Vedas are crucial to this time period, this era is also referred to as the Vedic Period.

(To read more about this, click here.)

  • About 500 to 300 BCE There are several changes that take place, further complicating and instigating religious and political reform.
    • (563 to 483 BCE) Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Buddha, challenges the caste system and the Vedas. He gave birth to Buddhism.
    • (530 BCE) The Persian Empire invades India. Darius I takes control of Northwest India, namely Pakistan and Afghanistan. Persian and Indian customs and beliefs are melded.
    • (327 BCE) Alexander the Great, the king of Ancient Greece, conquers India.
  • About 300 to 200 BCE Maruya Empire. Men from the Maruya family rule India. (I don’t think much happened, except that they took turns being Buddhist and not.)
  • The nation then split into different kingdoms. This was also when India started trade with Rome. (Augustus Caesar, emperor of Rome, had conquered Egypt. Egypt and India often traded goods, so naturally, India and Rome struck up a relationship.)
  • 300 to 500 CE The most notable kingdom is the Gupta Empire. Gupta was a Buddhist man of the merchant class who fiercely defied the caste system. Under his leadership, India flourished. They made leaps in all areas of study, economy and achieved an unprecedented level of stability. But succeeding rulers could do as well as Gupta himself, and the Empire began to deteriorate around 500 CE.
  • 550 CE Harshavardhan rules, but after his death, the kingdom falls apart.
  • 700s CE A Muslim general named Muhammed bin Quasim conquers Northern India. All indigenous Indian empires end. Quasim slowly overtakes India, and with so many different belief systems and languages, he finds this rather easy to do.

THEN

So much happened.

THEN

  • Late 1400s Foreign forces start to make parts of India their own. This includes the Dutch, British and French.
  • 1500s to 1600s The Spanish find a way from Europe to India, opening trade routes.
  • 1619 The British East India Company receives permission fro the Mughal Emperor to trade. By 1717, they can even go duty-free in Bengal. Eventually, the British East India Company wins total control over Carnatic Region. By 1850, with a few more battles, the British take hold of most of India.
  • 1858 The Indian Rebellion. Indian soldiers rebel against the British East India Company. But, without resources they are defeated.
  • 1876 to 1878 The Great Famine. Six to 10 million people die from starvation. British colonial rule was unable to properly administer resources, and overall, did a poor job of governing.
  • 1920 Political activists emerge to challenge British rule. Chief among these activists was Mahatma Gandhi.
  • 1939 to 1945 World War II. Still under British rule, about 2.5 million soldiers from the British Raj fight against Nazi Germany.
  • 1946 The British end their reign in India.
  • 1947 India declares Independence from the British Crown.

India

India is located in South Asia. As one of the most populous countries, it is the home to 1.2 billion people. The national and official language is Hindu, while most, if not all, also speak English (thank colonization). India has Hindu roots, which is reflected in their choice religion.

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India is surrounded by multiple bodies of water and is shaped much like the continent of Africa. It also shares borders with several different countries, including Pakistan (to the west) and Bangladesh (to the east.) The capital of India is New Delhi, and its most population-dense city is Mumbai.

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West Bengal

The state of Bengal is politically split. About 2/3 of the nation belongs to Bangladesh, while the western portion, so called West Bengal, is definitively Indian land.

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Bangladesh Bengal:

  • Nationally Bangladeshi
  • Mostly Muslim by religion
  • Speak Indo-Aryan Bengali, Urdu, English
  • Capital is Dacca

West Bengal:

  • Nationally India
  • Mostly Hindu by religion
  • Speak Indo-Aryan Bengali, English
  • Capital is Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)

World powers have fought over Bengal because of its wealth of resources and location. It facilitates trade and travel, making it prime real estate.

 Lahiri’s Writing

Like many other writers of color, Lahiri writes about the immigrant experience. Readers describe her writing as a study of human psychology, full of  subtleties instead of flamboyant drama or dialogue. Her writing is disciplined and shows a great deal of self-control while examining the extraordinary life within the ordinary.   

Quotes from POC Writer Jhumpa Lahiri

“The first sentence of a book is a handshake, perhaps an embrace. Style and personality are irrelevant. They can be formal or casual. They can be tall or short or fat or thin. They can obey the rules or break them. But they need to contain a charge. A live current, which shocks and illuminates.”

“It is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

“A bicultural upbringing is a rich but imperfect thing.”

“You can’t have a hit every time. The main thing is to keep on working and not be afraid to take risks. It’s better to do something that’s not perfect and successful every time. It’s important to be fearless and move forward, to learn from what went wrong.”

Works by POC Writer Jhumpa Lahiri

1999 Interpreter of Maladies (short stories)

2003 The Namesake

2008 Unaccustomed Earth (short stories)

2013 The Lowland

 

 

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