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Indian-Americans’ long affair with the spelling bee

Tapas Mishra, a Florida software engineer, called his sixth-grader daughter for a long overdue chat. She enjoyed swimming, but was beginning to win spelling contests.

world Updated: Jun 17, 2012 00:30 IST
Yashwant Raj

Tapas Mishra, a Florida software engineer, called his sixth-grader daughter for a long overdue chat. She enjoyed swimming, but was beginning to win spelling contests.

What if he were to wake her up in the middle of the night and gave her a choice: jump into the pool, or study for a spelling bee the next day. The bee, Stuti shot back.

The next day Mishra bought her a Webster with CD-ROM and a laptop. The young speller finished second at the Scripps Spelling Bee last month, losing to another Indian American.

Snigdha Nandipati became the fifth Indian-American to win the bee in five years, and 10th in 14 years, a run that began in 1999 when Nupur Lala won and was later featured in the documentary Spellbound.

Some feat for a community of 3 million, less than a per cent of US population.

Americans are practically out of what was a typically American tradition of children starting off in spelling contests from an early age -- kindergarten?

But that American tradition is fast turning into an Indian American ritual, thanks, of course, to community of high-achievers, but actually because of a little-known organisation.

Called the North South Foundation, it was co-founded in the 1990s by Ratnam Chitturi, a man who is so modest and publicity shy he hasn’t had a photo taken of himself in 20 years.

Sixty-eight year old Chitturi lives beyond the search box. Google doesn’t have much on him, and his organization’s website is no help, it’s a bland list of aims and activities.

But every Indian American champion of Scripps national Spelling Bee, National Geographic Bee, or Mathcount owes it to the foundation’s meticulous planning.

Both Stuti and Snigdha are Chitturi’s children.

As was Prem Trivedi, who finished second in two bees in 1997 and 1998. A Harvard Law School graduate, he attributes the Indian-American juggernaut to the “excellent work” by NSF.

“The main reason for Indian Americans doing so well (in theese bees) is the preparation the North South Foundation gives them,” said Prasanna Tadipatri a bee finalist from 1996.

The foundation is Indian American community’s best kept secret -- also its secret weapong. And an exclusive club, which doesn’t let in non-Indian Americans.

Chitturi and a friend Murali Gavini started it with the twin purpose of helping South Asian children overcome their natural handicap in English and help needy children in India..

“English is not our mother tongue,” Chitturi said. Children of recent immigrants from India uniformly did well in maths, but got whipped in English.

And, second, both Chitturi and his friend wanted to do something for the country of their origin. And scholarships for needy but bright children seemed to them the best option.

The foundation currently supports 2,500 children in India, undertaking to pay for their education all the way up to graduation if they retain their grades and good behaviour.

Mishra enrolled Stuti with the foundation soon after she started cracking local spelling competitions -- she now needed professional help to break through to the top level.

The foundation, which runs volunteer-driven chapters around the country, didn’t have one in Melbourne, Florida, where the Mishras live. The closest was in Jacksonville, 3 hours away.

“Once every year,” Mishra said, “we drove to Jacksonville for the annual contest.” But that was to come later. Stuti had first to clear the foundation’s entry point barriers.

Each entrant is first given a list of 1,000 words to learn understand and memorize -- all words pulled out from past national spelling bees.

A written test follows at the regional level to winnow out those clearly not fit to go the distance. An oral test follows, again at the regional level to pick contestants for the nationals.

The format follows the real bee, every step of the way from here. Children are divided into levels and compete vigorously but in an atmosphere of collaboration.

Stuti made extremely good friends while doing the foundation’s contests. Joined by a shared love, they sliced and diced words and shared their tricks that help them memorize words.

The foundation also runs workshops for children who want extra help for an extra fee but Mishra said he didn’t feel the need for it -- Stuti was doing fie without it.

The foundation holds the nationals -- top 10 from the regional contests -- at a different venue every year, but always at a university or a college.

“I want the children to see these colleges and want to go there,” Chitturi said. The foundation sees beyond contests -- he wants the experience to impel children to the highest level.

Trivedi, as mentioned before, went to Harvard and Tadipatri to Brown -- both Ivy League -- to mention just a few. You can’t fluke the bee, goes the belief at the foundation.

And what the foundation doesn’t give the children, they get it from their fiercely driven immigrant families, which are convinced there is only way of succeeding here: academics.

It’s hard to find Indian American children at soccer or football (American football) tryouts or lacrosse or ice hockey -- they might play occasionally but only as a distraction.

The road to college doesn’t go through a play field.

Apart form opening up the world of words to these children, the foundation also prepares from the big stage, perhaps equally critical an attribute.

From a young age, children get used to walking up to a microphone under bright stage light, face the moderator, the audience and their parents tearing up somewhere in the dark.

Moving up the foundation’s contests, by the time these children show up the at the real bee, they are veteranst -- fazed by nothing, afraid of no word, however tough or complex.

And they have no fear of their parent’s worst fear: defeat. After getting out in the last round, Stuti stood around giving interviews, with the equanimity of a much older person.

The foundation had clearly prepared her for more than just the bee.