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NRIs swarm at Spelling Bee in US

The event on May 31 and June 1 in the US will have a record 275 participants.

india Updated: May 30, 2006 16:07 IST

It is that time of the year again when a group of word-wise Indian American schoolchildren will go through some serious word crunching in their bid to win the United States' most prestigious word spelling contest, the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

This year the event will be held on May 31 and June 1 in Washington DC and will have a record 275 participants.

And, as in previous years, Indian Americans figure prominently among the list of favourites for winning the title.

In the past seven years, as many as five winners have been Indian Americans. Last year, a 13-year-old eighth grader of Indian descent, Anurag Kashyap, won the title by spelling out 'appoggiatura', a musical term, and became a celebrity with all major television channels and prominent publications featuring him. And when he returned to his California school, he received a marriage proposal too!

Prior to that, other Indian Americans who have won the coveted crown in recent years are Sai Gunturi (2003), Pratyush Buddiga (2002), George Abraham Thampy (2000) and Nupur Lala (1999).

This year 12-year-old Samir Patel is being touted as one of the favourites for the crown.

Patel, who is home-schooled, stood second last year, a notch up from the third position he had secured when he was just nine.

Another Indian American contestant worth keeping an eye on is 12-year-old Bonny Jain. Jain made news a few days ago when he won the National Geographic Bee contest by correctly identifying the mountains that extend from much of Wales, from the Irish Sea to the Bristol Channel, as the Cambrian Mountains. He got $25,000 for his efforts and a life membership of the National Geographic Society.

Two other Indian Americans stood second and third in this contest of geographical knowledge.

So, what is it that makes Indian Americans such a force to contend with in the spelling bee?

A report in The New York Times last year attributed it to the fact that the parents or grandparents of these highly talented children were usually well educated, they generally spoke English and appreciated the powers of education.

When Bala Natarajan became the first Indian American to win the national spelling bee in 1985, it had a tremendous impact on the Indian American community.

The Times report compared Bala's achievement to the effect that Juan Marichal's success in baseball had on the Dominican community in the US.

The report also compared Indian Americans' good shows in the bee to the Jews' violin playing skills and the Kenyans' success in long distance running.

"Unlike many American children who are schooled in sometimes amorphous whole-language approaches to reading and writing, Indians are comfortable with the rote-learning methods of their homeland, the kind needed to master lists of obscure words that easily stump spell-checker programmes. They do not regard champion spellers as nerds," the report said.

Another major reason behind the success of the Indian Americans is the efforts of the North South Foundation, an organisation set up by Ratnam Chitturi, an Indian American.

Apart from improving the skills of Indian American children in English and mathematics, the foundation also regularly holds spelling bees through its 60 chapters spread across the US.

Hence, the Indian American dominance in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And winning the title means celebrity status.

The popularity of the event can be gauged from the fact that last year the leading American TV network ABC threw out the Miss America pageant and opted for this word-centric show. This year ABC is going to beam the finals live.

Apart from this, a documentary and a feature film have been made and a novel has been written based on this contest.

The popularity of the event, which was started in 1925 by the Louiseville-Courier Journal newspaper, stirred media frenzy after popular sports channel ESPN started telecasting it from 1994 onwards.

This year, too, do check your TV listings. Who knows, another Indian American might just retain the title for the community.

First Published: May 30, 2006 10:37 IST