Word in progress

Written by Indira Kannan | Updated: Jul 6 2014, 20:56pm hrs
The Indian community in the United States spells success in many ways, including in some cases, k-n-a-i-d-e-l, s-t-r-o-m-u-h-r and f-e-u-i-l-l-e-t-o-n. These are all winning words for Scripps National Spelling Bee champions in recent years. An Indian-American student, Balu Natarajan, first won the contest in 1985, followed by Rageshree Ramachandran three years later. However, Indian-American students have been on a bee-spree since Nupur Lala won in 1999, and have emerged winners on 12 occasions in the past 16 years. This year, the community, not content with producing just one champion again, threw up twojoint winners Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoeonly the fourth time the trophy has been shared since the contest began in 1925.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a big event in the US. It has been telecast live on the sports channel ESPN since 1994. Lala was one of the subjects of the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, which followed eight finalists through the 1999 championship. The 2009 winner Kavya Shivashankar and her family were invited to meet US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, an exhibit at the famous Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC, thats open from February 27 to August 16, features spelling bee champions from the community. Winners take home $30,000 cash and other prizes, and do the rounds of national television shows, all of this before they leave eighth grade, the cut-off point for the bee.

And then, what The winners are typically 12-14 years old, and the most recent ones, of course, are still in school. But a look at previous winners shows they are pursuing a wide range of careers. The first Indian-American winner, Natarajan, practises sports medicine in Chicago. Pratyush Buddiga, the 2002 champion, is a professional poker player.

Lala, who kicked off the recent trend of Indian-Americans winning the nationals, says she had no idea what she was getting into when she entered her first spelling bee at school in Florida. The reason why I entered spelling bee at all is that we were offered extra credit for entering the spelling bee and I badly needed it because I was terrible at grammar, she recalls. Lala has now completed her masters degree and will start medical school in Arkansas later this year.

Shivashankar and 2008 winner Sameer Mishra are attending Columbia University in New York. They believe their national wins might have eased their path into the Ivy League university, but that wasnt the biggest benefit. Mishra says he was shy and socially awkward as a boy and the bee helped him develop his character and personality. Adds Shivashankar, I included it in my application, and I wrote about it. Im sure it was a factor, but the experience itself is more where all the benefits come from.

The 2003 champion, Sai Gunturi, went on to study quantitative economics and has worked at a marketing software start-up in Dallas for the past three years. To the extent that Ive noticed, it just helps you stick out from the pile. Its a signalling mechanism that, hey, this person has applied themselves and accomplished something and in terms of looking for work, it helps your resume stand out from the pile, Gunturi says.

And while the winners may have entire dictionaries locked up in their brains, a few choose to stick with the subject in higher studies or at work. As Shivashankar, whos studying neuroscience, says, I took a linguistics class for fun at Columbia, but I dont think Id major in it or anything. Mishra too says he doesnt see himself studying linguistics or the classics, and wants a career in finance or the law. As for Gunturi, he says he was never particularly passionate about words or languages, but only entered the spelling bee for the sake

of competing.

Yet, some find that their intense preparation for the spelling bee, which could run to as many as eight hours a day or more in the months leading up to the finals, pays off in unexpected ways in their chosen fields. Lala realised her training improved her ability to recall things and pattern recognition. For someone whos working in cancer, its amazing how I can spot exceptions and stuff that people wouldnt see, say, in a set of slides for a biopsy, and I think that the spelling bee sort of trains you that way, she says.

While they dont pursue careers related to spelling, most bee winners and contestants stay in touch with the discipline. The 1981 champion Paige Kimble, nee Pipkin, is now the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Mishra live-tweeted the finals on the contests official account this year. Others often stay in touch with and volunteer at the annual spelling bee for south Asian-American students organised by the Indian-American-led non-profit group North South Foundation. This contest, launched about two decades ago, has proved to be a nursery for Indian-American students who have gone on to become finalists and winners at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The preponderance of Indian names on the list of winners in the past two decades is too glaring to miss, but the organisers of the Scripps bee are insistent that ethnicity has nothing to do with success at the contest. The dictionary doesnt see colour and nor do we, says Chris Kemper, a spokesman for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Our spellers come from all walks of life, they come from all areas and they come from many different interests and hobbies. But the one true consistent among all the spellers is a love and passion for reading, he adds.

The Indian-American winners, most of whom have spent a majority of their young lives in the US, and are as American as any of their classmates, also attribute their success not to their genes, but mostly to their families. To the extent that being Indian counts, its the attention Indian parents often pay to their childrens activities in school.

Obviously, theres the work ethic that Indian parents try to instill in their kids, that if you work hard youll succeed, says Gunturi. And I think in the spelling bee more than a lot of other competitions, theres a very easy path to study, like, heres the dictionary, learn all the words in itits just a function of how hard you work. It lends itself to a very work-ethic-driven strategy.

2012 winner Snigdha Nandipatis father created a computer program to help her train. When I look at south Asian kids and their success in the spelling bee, its not just themselves struggling against a dictionary trying to learn words. Its really an effort across the family where parents are really involved, says Mishra.

The effort usually rubs off on siblings. Gunturi, Mishra and Shivashankar are among many Indian-American students who preceded or followed their brothers and sisters to the Scripps bee finals. And while they may not always be able to employ their facility with spelling in their chosen fields, one things for surea whole generation of Indian-American kids is never going to be at a loss for words.

Indira Kannan is a writer based in Toronto