Indian-American Kids and the National Spelling Bee

Yet another American-Indian kid has won the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Snigdha Nandipati, who won the 85th edition on Thursday (May 31), is the fifth consecutive Indian-American to do so. Since 1999 when Nupur Lala won it for the first time – she became the subject of a documentary, Spellbound – ten Indian-American kids have won the competition. Snigdha’s closest competitors in the finals were also American-Indians: Stuti Mishra (who came second) and Arvind Mahankali (in third place). In 1993 the winner had to spell ‘kamikaze’, a familiar word. But on Thursday, Snigdha won by correctly spelling ‘guetapens’, a word that I (for one) had never heard of.

I confess to feeling a nationalistic thrill while watching the finals. So it was interesting to me that Amardeep Singh (whose blog I like and follow) feels ambivalent about Indian-American kids doing well in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But then our backgrounds and locations are different. It is true that there is nothing in Indian ‘culture’ to explain the success of kids like Snigdha; nor is there a tradition of holding English language spelling bees in India. The Indian-American dominance however has a lot to do with the fact that English continues to have the mystique of an aspirational language in India.

In an essay on Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, Amitav Ghosh wrote about an incident which occurred  in a bus stuck in a Calcutta traffic jam. A  frustrated passenger began to complain that nothing worked in the city. He was silenced by a fellow passenger who asked, ‘What are you complaining about? Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, and wasn’t he from Calcutta?’ The Scripps National Spelling Bee isn’t exactly the Nobel Prize but Snigdha’s success would have given her her fifteen minutes of fame in India. Back home, my friend Moloy and his wife Mamta must have read about her in an Assamese paper (and experienced the same thrill that went through me). Moloy is a driver in Tezpur University (where I work); he and Mamta send their son Aditya to an English-medium school because they want him to become a doctor or an engineer (and not a driver).

As a schoolboy, I was good at spelling, though I couldn’t have got the words I heard during the final on Thursday correct – words like ‘chatoyant’, ‘quattrocento’, ‘saccharolytic’, ‘admmittatur’, ‘chinoablepsia’, ‘arrondissement’ and ‘schwarmelie’ (this was the one that finally stumped Stuti).  In school and at home, it was no more than a joke if I misspelled an Assamese or Hindi word. But misspelling English words was unacceptable. In fact, well into adult life I continued to regard bad spelling in English as almost a moral failing. I was shocked to learn that there are errors in Keats’s and Yeats’s letters until I accepted A. K. Ramanujan’s explanation that a second language speaker often spells much more correctly than a first language speaker.

Watching the finals I was reminded of the kind of investment middleclass Indians and, increasingly, people like Moloy and Mamta make in education (and in English). Snigdha’s grandfather (and his wife) had travelled from Hyderabad for the finals. The old man was overjoyed when his granddaughter won.  An Indian-American organization called North-South provides some of the training but the crucial role is clearly that of the parents. Training to be a champion speller requires hard work. Rote learning can get you only so far. You need luck but you’d have to know the origin of a word (its Greek, Latin, French root) to make an educated guess.  It was refreshing to see normal kids (I wouldn’t call them geeky) like the Snigdha (a shy kid with braces), Stuti and Arvind on TV. No signs of teen rebellion there or of the ‘Tiger-Mom’ kind of parenting. These kids have internalized their parents’ ambitions.

My fourteen- year-old son, who was watching the finals with me, asked the logical Indian question. What would be Snigdha’s haul?  I googled and find it includes $30,000 in cash, a trophy, a $2,500 savings bond, a $5,000 scholarship, $2,600 in reference works from the Encyclopedia Britannica and an online language course. It’s probably only a matter of time before some TV channel in India decides to sponsor and telecast an appropriately modified Indian version of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. A mix of education, wealth, success (upward social mobility), television and entertainment can’t go wrong. You’d need someone charming and successful but also with due gravitas to play the host. Amitabh Bachchan would be just right.