A friend called out of the blue. She was passing through town and wanted to meet. We did, and it was fun, like catching up on old times always is. “So what brings you here?” I asked. “A spelling bee,” she said, “My son was participating.” I looked at the boy, all of eight. He stared back, solemnly. “I didn’t win. A boy from Bangalore did,” he said. A long-time resident of Delhi, I didn’t even know India, let alone the capital, hosted spelling bees. My friend, a resident of Mysore, enlightened me. “The MaRRS Spelling Bee is conducted in 21 states and the Gulf. A boy from Kerala won the first international championship,” she said.
I should have known. Last Friday, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam were declared co-champions of the US National Spelling Bee. It was the eighth year running, and the 16th time in all, that American kids of Indian origin won the contest. Twelve of the winners so far have been of South Indian heritage. The first flash of Indian-American spelling brilliance in the US was seen in 1985 when young Alu Natarajan surged ahead with ‘milieu’ as the winning word. In 1988, Rageshree Ramachandran cracked the contest by spelling ‘elegiacal’ right. But why has an American phenomenon like a spelling bee become an Asian playground? Why have US commentators started comparing the Indian dominance of the spelling world to the Kenyan mastery of marathons? Is it a question of nature and nurture? The Kenyans’ skinny bodies and highly active lifestyle are said to make them suited to long-distance running. Is the Indian immigrants’ focus on academic achievement and competitive spirit the cause of their excellence in spelling tests?
Critics say Indian-Americans do well in the contests because they’re about memorisation, which is central to the education the parents of the winning kids got back in India. They point out that even today, Indian kids do most of their learning by rote. They say immigrant parents want their kids to blend into the mainstream, and knowing the right English words is one way of ensuring that.
Some of this is true. But it’s also a fact that the kids coming to the spelling bees have highly educated professionals for parents, who place a higher value on learning than other accomplishments. Also, a spelling contest fits the Indian-American disposition. The children spell a word correctly, and get on with the competition. They don’t grandstand or cavil. Performance talks, not personality; a characteristic that’s in sync with the values they see at home.
In a recent interview, Pratyush Buddiga, who won the 2002 Bee, said: “My parents were strict in the sense that they valued academics and believed that I shouldn’t waste my free time… But, as far as the spelling went, by nine, it wasn’t my parents who were pushing me. I was pushing myself. I needed to be the best.”
And that’s what makes these kids special. Ask for an inch, they give you a mile—of accomplishments. Ramachandran, the ’98 winner, designed a computer model to simulate El Nino while in high school. Nupur Lala, who won in ’99 and was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary Spellbound, graduated with a degree in Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science, and has now switched tracks to become a physician scientist. Buddiga is a poker superstar who’s made over $2.3 million in the last 1.5 years. This year’s winner, Vanya, plays the tuba and piano, and recently won the Mid-America Music Association award for Exceptional Pianist.
Little wonder, spelling bees never bother about words like ‘middling’.