The annual Scripps Spelling Bee ended in a tie for the third consecutive year with two Indian-Americans declared joint winners in a victory for children from the community for the third time running.
At 11, Nihar Janga also became the youngest to win the Bee since 2002 . “I’m just speechless. I can’t say anything. I’m only in fifth grade,” he gushed at the presentation ceremony.
The victory of Jairam Hathwar, 13, was equally remarkable: his elder brother Sriram Hathwar is also a bee winner, from 2014, and also a joint winner.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” Hathwar, who is from New York state, said, adding, “I dreamed about winning this bee and it finally came true. It’s just amazing.”
Hathwar and Janga competed as equals despite the age gap, cheered each other on in the sudden-death rounds when they were the only ones left, duelling one obscure word after another.
In the final round, when either could have lost with a wrong spelling, Hathwar got his word “Feldenkrais” right; it’s a method of education named after its Israeli founder.
Janga, a Texan who became a crowd favourite with a commentator calling him “The Machine” for his cool demeanor, won with “gesellschaft”, a German-origin word for community, society.
Each of them won a trophy and $45,000 in cash and prizes.
Indian Americans have won the contest nine years running now, and three times jointly in consecutive years, and 14 times in all, since the community’s first in 1985, Balu Natrajan.
Some Americans perturbed by the stranglehold of the Indian American community over the contest vented with racists remarks on social media in 2015, to widespread condemnation.
There has been no offensive backlash this year so far, not any that were reported or noticed. There were only some attempts to understand the tiny ethnic minority’s spate of bee wins.
A countrywide spelling competition modelled on the Bee and popular among Indian Americans is often cited as the reason why children from the community are doing so well.
The parallel bee is run by a non-profit, North South Foundation, co-founded by Indian American Ratnam Chitturi, who uses part of the enrolment fee to sponsor needy students in India.
As Hathwar and Janga celebrated on Thursday night, Chitturi said in a mail: “Both co-champions are North South Foundation children! Nine-year winning streak for NSF kids.”
Nihar dazzled the audience by his grasp of words. When given “biniou,” he asked pronouncer Jacques Bailly, “Is that a Breton bagpipe?” then whizzed through it with head down, hands at side and shifting slightly foot to foot.
Given “taoiseach,” he said, “Is that an Irish word for prime minister?” and nailed it, bringing cheers from the crowd.
Jairam created an opening for Nihar when he stumbled on “draathaar,” a king of dog, wincing when he realised his mistake. Nihar then bobbled “ayacohuite,” a Mexican tree, giving Jairam new life.
“Hello again,” Jairam said to Bailly when he stepped up to the microphone. Even as the boys battled head to head, they gave each other encouraging hand slaps as they returned from the microphone.
After several more rounds, Jairam misspelled “mischsprache,” a fused language. Nihar failed again to knock him out by missing on “tetradrahm,” a kind of coin.
One more round, and Bailly said, “This is a beautiful moment. If you both spell the next word correctly, you will be declared co-champions.” They did, and the room erupted in confetti and cheers.
The finalists were winnowed from more than 280 spelling whizzes after two days of written and oral tests in a Washington suburb. (with inputs from Reuters)