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Indians fail to win Spelling Bee;
Rajiv Tarigopula ends No 4

Arthur J Pais in New York
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June 02, 2006
By the time he had got the spelling for the word heiligenschein wrong, 13-year-old Rajiv Tarigopula had gained so much of respect for his ability to spell complex words with a serene disposition that he got a standing ovation.

The fellow competitors in the final round -- that consisted of 13 students ranging from 10 to 15 years -- and their parents gave Rajiv several rounds of warm applause as he exited at the fourth position from the 79th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The winner in the 2006 Bee was 13-year-old Kerry Close from New Jersey who spelt a raft of complex and not-so-complex words and took home over $42,000 (about Rs 18.9 lakhs)in prizes, finally winning with the word, Ursprache. She is the first girl to win the competition since 1999.

Rajiv, who got words like gallinaceous, zebu and phalarope right, seemed one of the most intense of the competitors.

'I think it's cool how big it has become,' Rajiv told hometown newspaper St Louis Post-Dispatch during a break. He seemed unfazed at the possibility that he could win or lose before a national audience of millions, the newspaper said.

'If I make it there, that should be fun,' he had said.

The 13 finalists, including four South Asians, faced the judges, their parents and over 5 million viewers as the ABC television network began showing the final rounds of the 79th Scripps National Bee held in Washington, DC at 8 pm Eastern Standard Time.

This is the first time that the contest has been shown live on a major television channel.

Despite an Indian not winning the crown this year, the enthusiasm for the Bee in the Indian communities won't be diminished, feels James Maguire, author of American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds. The contestants are not always nerds, he says adding that many of them are well-rounded young people.

The Spelling Bee has become tougher year after year, he says. Ever since the executives of mainstream television stations have discovered that the contest is in actual fact the original reality television show and have decided to telecast it, it has started having a huge appeal to young people and their parents, he adds.

Maguire, who discussed on the PBS television channel, the increasing craze to be in the competition, said Indians parents took an extra interest in nudging their children into the competition. That is because more than half a dozen Indians have won the competition following Balu Natarajan's victory in 1985, Maguire said.

The Indian presence has become even more visible in the last seven years as five of the winners are of Indian origin: Nupur Lala, in 1999; George Abraham Thampy, 2000; Pratyush Buddiga, 2002; Sai R Gunturi, 2003 and Anurag Kashyap, 2005.

To many immigrants, especially Indian Americans, it has become a matter of pride to see "if one of our own can win this quintessential American competition."

Rajiv, who came 4th last year too, cannot be back next year as he will be in high school.

Michael Christie, who came fifth, won't be back next year because he too will be in high school, his mother Smita Christie said. "But I have a younger child, a daughter and she is looking forward to be in the competition," she added.

The 13 in the final list had spelt words such as boraginaceous, anacoluthon and wapiti, gigerium, empyreumatic, and mirliton.

There were a number of Indian words including izzat (respect), makara and kundalini. Interestingly most of these words went to non-Indians and Rajiv did not get any of them.

Son of physicians Choudary Tarigopula and Sumitra Vasireddy, Rajiv echoed the thoughts of many competitors when he said the Spelling Bee was much more than learning the correct spelling. It is also about knowing the roots and history of words, and reading widely, he said. Being in the competition was also about learning to be humble and respecting other achievers, and cheering those who fail early on, he added.

The final round had Nidharshan Anandasivam, Michael Christie and Kavya Shivashankar. One of the first to be eliminated in the final round, Kavya, who at 10 was the youngest of the competitors, got the spelling for the word gematrial wrong. She spelled it gematriol.

A fifth grade student in Olathe, Kansas, Kavya was the only one who was not a national finalist in previous competitions. In fact, it was her first national Bee. Competitors ranged from standard four to eight.

At the very beginning of the competition, over six months ago, there were 10.5 million students from many countries including Canada [Images], Jamaica, New Zealand [Images], Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands in the competition. Most of the competitors were American including hundreds of Indian students. Out of the huge pool just about 275 made it to Washington, DC and began going through various hoops on Wednesday. At least 10 percent of the 275 were of South Asian origin.

Eliminated in an earlier round on Thursday was the ever-ebullient Samir Sudhir Patel, who was on many people's list to be the winner. He came second last year. But when Samir, 12, could not spell the word eremacausis, he lost without even into getting into the final 13.

Bonny Jain, the National Geographic Bee winner, entered the competition for the second year in a row but could not make it to the final round.

What would Jain tell other competitors? "Focus hard, read a lot, get your parents and friends test you constantly and never give up," he says.

As for Thampy, who appeared in the Oscar-nominated arthouse hit documentary Spellbound over four years ago, there were three reasons for his success: "One: Trust and believe in Jesus. Two: Honor your parents. Three: Hard work."

Mabel E Pais contributed to this feature

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