Joshua Bell in the Subway

I watched Joshua Bell play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto last night on PBS Live at Lincoln Center.  It’s the Mostly Mozart Festival in NYC.

This is one of my favorite pieces of classical music.  The melodious theme comes right out in the opening bars, not needing any intro from the orchestra as in conventional concertos.  I like it that way, swift, cut to the chase.  And here’s the sign of greatness:  the audacity to break new grounds.  Last night I saw the violinist’s audacity matching that of Mendelssohn’s: Bell re-wrote the cadenza for himself.  He has not only given an engaging performance, but has left his watermark in the piece as well.

If you want to see what a born winner is like, just briefly look at his bio.  At 10, he was a tennis champion.  Four years later, he made his professional debut as a violinist and became the youngest person to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And the rest is history.

Bell has recorded more than 30 CD’s, won 4 Grammys, indirectly an Oscar as he performed the winning soundtrack for Best Original Score in ‘The Red Violin’, and garnered accolades too numerous to mention.  His achievements culminated in the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2007, the highest honor for a musician in America.  That puts him in rank with previous prize winners Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Andre Watts.  But beyond his musical career, he continues with sports and pursues other pastimes.  How about a video games world championship for versatility? Yup, he got that too, in 1996.

Well ok, so far so good… until he was asked by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten to busk in a Washington DC subway station during morning rush hour.  At 7:51 am on January 12, 2007, a few months before he won the Avery Fisher Prize, Joshua Bell stood in a DC subway station in jeans and a long-sleeve T.  He opened up his case, and started playing his 1713 Stradivarius.

That was probably the first time he had been ignored or even given the cold shoulder:

He got $32.17 for his 43 minutes playing, not counting the woman who recognized him and gave him a twenty.  And yes, there were a few pennies in his case.  More than a thousand people passed by.  In the hustle and bustle of morning rush, few had even stopped to look at him, despite hearing the music.

The commuters were oblivious to the treat that would have cost them a hefty $100 in a concert hall, if they could find a ticket that is.  And for Weingarten,  he got a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his Washington Post cover story ‘Pearls Before Breakfast’.  To read this fascinating article, CLICK HERE.

Meant to be a philosophical musing on ‘Art and Contexts’, the experiment aims at exploring the epistemology of beauty.  Will we know what beauty is once it’s taken out of context?  Are there preconditions for us to appreciate the arts?  Do we have to recognize a musician before we can admire the music he plays?  If art is taken out of its frame, is it still art?

But… maybe it’s more a sociological study of urban life, or one of economics.  Even if people recognize beauty, is it worthwhile to stop and sacrifice a few precious minutes?   Weighing the economic cost of being late for work, and the enjoyment of music, the bottom line is quite obvious.  What place does beauty have in the pragmatics of our daily routines?  Where do music and the arts rank in life’s competing priorities?

Pearls before breakfast… What breakfast?  Gotta run…


Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri


“Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of writer who makes you want to grab the next person you see and say, ‘Read this!'”

— Amy Tan

Unaccustomed Earth is one of the five fiction selections of  New York Times Best Books for 2008.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut work, Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and later received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New Yorker Debut of the Year award,  American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison Metcalf Award, and was translated into twenty-nine languages.  Her next work was The Namesake, a novel which was turned into film by acclaimed director Mira Nair.  Unaccustomed Earth is her third book.

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London, England, to Bengali immigrants.  Her family later moved to the United States and settled in Rhode Island where she grew up. Lahiri went to Barnard College and received a B.A. in English Literature.  She furthered her studies in literature and creative writing and obtained three M.A.’s, and ultimately, a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies at Boston University.  So, she knows her subject matter well.  In Unaccustomed Earth, characters are Bengali immigrants, mostly academics, their second generation who are born in foreign soil and their non-Indian friends or spouse.  The stories deal with the entanglement of cultural traditions, incompatible values, failed hopes and expectations, and the subsequent internal strives that haunt them all.

But why would we be interested in stories like these?  Herein lies Lahiri’s insight.  While the viewpoint of these characters might be parochial, Lahiri’s stories bring out the larger universal significance.  Who among us doesn’t belong to a community, and at one time or another, question his/her conformity in that very community?   Regardless of our ethnicity, who among us isn’t born into a family with its own peculiar traditions and values?  Who among us doesn’t feel the distance separating generations in our world of rapidly shifting paradigms, be they cultural, social, or spiritual?   And who among us, as one in the mass diaspora of drifting humanity, doesn’t want to lay down roots in fertile soil?

Despite the somber themes, reading Lahiri is an enjoyable ride.  Herein lies Lahiri’s talent.  She is a sensitive storyteller, personal in her voice, subtle in her description, meticulous in her observation of nuances, and stylish in her metaphoric inventions.  Her language is deceptively simple.  The seemingly lack of suspense is actually the calm before the storm, which usually comes as just a punchline in the end of each story, leaving you with a breath of  “Wow, powerful!”  But it is for that very line that you eagerly press on as if you are reading a thriller or a page-turner.

jhumpa_lahiriThe book is divided into two main parts.  The first contains five short stories.  The second, entitled “Hema and Kaushik”, consists of three stories but can be read as a novella on the whole, for they are about two characters whose lives intertwine in an inexplicable way.  While the characters and their situations are contemporary, their quest is the age old longing for love and connection.

I have enjoyed all the stories, but the most impressionable to me is the title one.  In  “Unaccustomed Earth”,  Ruma is married to an American, Adam, with a young child Akash, and pregnant with another.   Her recently widowed father comes to stay with her in Seattle from the East Coast, just for a visit.   During his stay, Ruma’s father builds up a bond with his grandson Akash.   The two create a little garden at the back of the house, a relationship thus flourishes as the flowers and plants blossom.  Ruma struggles with the idea of whether she should welcome her father to live with her for good to fulfil her filial duty, but by so doing, she would be adding a burden to her nuclear family.  What she does not know though is that her father has his secret and internal conflict as well.  He too wants a life of freedom and love.  The story ends with a dash of humor and a little surprise, reminiscent of a Somerset Maugham story.  I will not say more, or the spoiler will lessen your enjoyment.

I have read all three of Lahiri’s work.  And this is my query:  If her first book garnered the many literary awards including the Pulitzer, I just wonder what else could she win with her newest creation, which I enjoy far more.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, published by Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2008.  333 pages.

~ ~ ~ Ripples