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Winners take it all

Varun is an exceptional 14-year-old. And you may leave it at that, wish him well and move on, if not for the fact that he’s part of a wave of Indian American children sweeping every academic prize in the land. Yashwant Raj writes.

world Updated: Jul 14, 2013 01:20 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times

It was 5:30 in the morning. Too early for Varun Jain. He liked to sleep late specially as school had closed for summer vacation. His father, Vivek Jain, a California physician, was up, however, and online. He wanted to check Varun’s SAT score, which the younger son had taken three weeks ago.

It was a perfect 2,400, a national record for an eighth grader. Varun didn’t have to take that test, which determines college readiness. He still has a couple of years to go. But his parents were running out of challenges for him. So, he took the test, and killed it. Varun heard the score, when woken up, mumbled “wow” and went right back to sleep, leaving it to the family to tell relatives here and in India — they are from Hyderabad.

Varun is an exceptional 14-year-old. And you may leave it at that, wish him well and move on, if not for the fact that he’s part of a wave of Indian American children sweeping every academic prize in the land.

Here is the roll of honours for 2013.

Arvind Mahankali won the Scripps Spelling Bee, Sathwik Karnik won the National Geographic Bee, Ashwin Sah came second in Mathcount, Nilai Sarda grabbed third position in Jeopardy Teen, Arjav Rawal won the Rudd’s National Elementary School Spelling Bee... And now Varun.

Indian Americans have so dominated the Spelling Bee — winning it six times in a row now — that a late night comedian has taken to calling it the Indian Superbowl. It is one, indeed.

The waterfront venue of the contest on the outskirts of Washington DC increasingly resembles every year an event from any Indian school. It’s an annual jamboree for the Indian American community gathering to celebrate their growing prosperity in a country they came as complete strangers years ago. While the tech revolution and the Silicon Valley were shared successes, victories at the Bees and such other contests are their own, won through their own hard work.

Seeds are sown at home, where high-achieving parents will settle for nothing but straight As; and, nurtured outside by a community that prefers Bee trophies to soccer victories. Seven of the 10 finalists this year were of Indian descent. And the winner, of course, was Arvind.

The winner, a type
Reporter: So, what are you going to do with the prize money?

Arvind: Save it for college.

Reporter: How will you celebrate?

Arvind: I don’t know.

Reporter: Have you ever tried knaidel (word that won him the championship)?

Arvind: No.

Reporter: What will you do now?

Arvind: Study physics.

Study physics? Don’t you want to take a break? Celebrate? Don’t you want to use a part of the prize money — $30,000 — to buy yourself something, a pizza?

He had barely even allowed himself a smile. Perched on a high stool, 13-year-old Arvind faced the cameras trained on him, calmly dealing with the post-championship news conference that comes with the trophy. Ratnam Chitturi was watching him from hundreds of miles away on television. And smiled, approvingly. Arvind’s answers showed focus and discipline. “He dropped everything to concentrate on the Bee,” Chitturi said, many days later. That’s what makes Indian Americans special. Chitturi runs a nationwide network of coaching programmes mimicking the championships in their minutest details to prepare Indian American children. What else can explain it? Coincidence? “There is no coincidence about hard work,” said Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She should know — being a Bee champion herself.

Arvind woke up at 5:00 am every weekend to prepare. “He never had to be told,” said his father Srinivas Mahankali. His focus was on English words of German origin, that had tripped him in his previous attempts. So, when he got his first German word this time, he was ready.

Circles of support
American children have sports, Indian American children have the Bee, and its other versions such as the National Geographic Bee, Mathcount and so on. And like Soccer Moms and Dads, there are Bee Moms and Dads, who drive their children from one contest to another.

Rathna Karnik, a Massachusetts mother, is one of them. She is a software engineer like her husband Vishwanath Karnik. But she decided to stay home to help their sons through the difficulties of settling down. They came to the US in 2002, basing themselves in Ohio, moving to Connecticut and, finally, to Massachusetts, where they’ve been for years now.

Their elder son Karthik first took a shot at the National Geographic Bee also called the GeoBee, making it to the final twice, beating his younger brother Sathwik. Sathwik, 12, came through in 2013, winning the championship. Having their mother home helped, said the elder Karnik. And in Sathwik’s case, having a brother going through the same process worked too. And then there were the super coaches, from Chetturi’s organisation called the North South Foundation, which runs a countrywide network of coaching programme. (See box)

In the end, however, Sathwik’s victory was his own. “He used to take the daily quiz posted by National Geographic,” said Karthik. Once again, on his own.

It’s a generation that likes winning, on its own.

First Published: Jul 13, 2013 23:36 IST