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Amid wanna-'bees': It's a family affair

July 23, 2010 19:52 IST

Sandip Roy visits a flock of wanna-'bees' at an all-Indian spelling bee in Milpitas, California and is transported back to India. Illustration by Uttam Ghosh.

When I told my friend I was going to an Indian Spelling Bee, he said, "Is there any other kind?"

It's true. Who would have thought we would become the Spelling Bee masters of America? Now it is news when a desi does not make it into the top three of the National Scripps Spelling Bee.

But this was the South Asian Spelling Bee. It said clearly you had to at least have a desi grandparent or something like that. (Probably the same requirements as that OCI card.)

It happens in nine cities with a grand finale in New Jersey.  When I walked into the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, I saw exactly what I had expected. The written elimination rounds were over and there were parents everywhere, while the spellers (aged 7 to 13) were having lunch. Their smaller siblings raced around, little spellers-in-training brought in to absorb the magic.

"How did you do?" asked one anxious mother.

"I think I got it all," said the wanna-bee confidently. I was having flashbacks to my school leaving examinations in India. The only difference was the mothers were not anxiously carrying chilled green coconuts to calm nerves on a hot summer afternoon.

But the wanna-bee was right. The founder of the South Asian Spelling Bee, Rahul Walia said that all 59 contestants who had taken the written exam had qualified. No one had been eliminated, not even the seven year olds. It was going to be a long night.

I have to confess I came to roll my eyes. But in the end, exhausted, I just watched goggle eye as the last six kept rolling with perfect rounds where no one was eliminated. The desperate judges rolled out homonyms, trick words that sounded like other words.

How about krewe -- a social club that sponsor balls and parades as part of Mardi Gras?

No problem. Can I have a definition? How about in a sentence? And then the young man aced it.

The seven year old who could barely reach the mike spelled Spritz correctly. And I wondered what strange twilight world I had entered where entire families sequestered themselves in an auditorium on a sunny Sunday afternoon to spell.

"Its not particularly exciting spelling," said one young champ. "But I seem to be good at it. So I do it."

"Mostly parental pressure I guess."

"We do keep at our kids," his mother said with a smile. "It's just the way we were raised."

How long did you prepare for this one? I ask the boy.

"For this one -- only a week or so," he replied. "For the National Scripps one I prepare much more."

"A week?" his mother interjected. "You are exaggerating. You barely did a couple of days."

The spelling bee is obviously a national obsession. It's become our community blood sport. But it's also producing its own heroes -- some home-schooled, some public-schooled.

One eight year old from Fremont rattled off the names of the past winners as if they were Bollywood stars. Kavya Shivashankar. Anamika Veeramani, he said his eyes shining.  He said he was "spellbound" watching them on television. Yes, he used that word -- "spellbound."

Did you know when Kavya's father came to the Los Angeles event all the parents wanted him to give a talk about how he coached Kavya, asked one mother. Was Kavya's sister Vanya going to be an even better speller? A spelling bee workshop? What next I wondered.

I remember those newspaper ads in India of Agarwal IIT and Joint Entrance coaching classes. Those serious bespectacled boys with fledgling mustaches, those pigtailed women all staring out of a grid of passport photos -- an honor roll of exam toppers that looked somehow like a criminal line up.

Is that the next step for our spelling bees? Spelling bee coaching classes?

I know most people wonder whether we have a South Asian spelling bee gene lurking in there somewhere. But looking at the 59 kids battling it out over "ichthyosaur" and "coriaceous" I realized the secret weapons were the families. (Though some might call them motivated parents with no lives.)

These were family affairs.

There was the mother sitting in the audience painstakingly writing down each word in her spelling bee binder.

There was grandpa in a Cisco baseball cap taking pictures with his iPhone.

There was little sister hanging out for hours watching her brother tussle with words on stage, spelling sushi silently with him.

Dads in T-shirts and shorts text messaged updates to the folks at home.

(And more touchingly, there was dad consoling the little girl who got knocked out and was sobbing as if the world had ended.)

It teaches them humility, one dad told me. These kids have to learn to lose. (Actually the parents need to learn it as well.) It's just the luck of the draw. You can miss your word even if you know the next one, or the one after that. You might even know the winning word. But if you don't know yours, you don't get a second chance.

But if you are the parent of a six year old and you do want her to be the next Anamika, here are my tips, fresh from the beehive.

Mix up diets.

It seemed more often than not kids stumble on food words. Ramen. Sukiyaki. Praline. Did you ever eat a praline, I asked the little girl who spelled it praleen. She said "Never." Though I did feel for the kid who had to spell spareribs. She was probably a good little vegetarian. It felt unfair that she was felled by a piece of meat.

Forget those BBC pronunciations you grew up with. If you want your child to be a spelling bee champ, you'd better sound American. They don't say Sultan the way we described the sultans of Delhi. They say it like the Dire Straits sang Sultans of Swing. That is just the way it is. And no matter how many appeals you file after your kid botches the spelling, it's not going to change a thing.

Watch out for that 'th' sound.

Desis can't seem to get it just right. And it makes all the difference between live and lithe. The auditorium's collective heart sank as the pronouncer said "Lithe" and the boy repeated back "Live", unable it seems to hear the difference.

Get the drug vocab down.

By round 12, the drugs start popping up. How do you spell tetracycline? What about erythromycin? You can consider it head start on that medical career.

And when they lose at age seven, tell them to come back. Because that's what Kavya did. And that's what Anamika did. And if that doesn't work, try the Geography Bee.

Nineteen rounds later, the Bay Area spelling bee had a winner. Anvita Mishra, a serious, unsmiling girl all through the marathon session, suddenly grinned. Her mother appeared, brush in hand, furiously brushing her daughter's hair for the television cameras.

I staggered out.

I used to be a word geek too. I remember reading our old falling apart Oxford dictionary for pleasure, the way you'd read a book. I don't know how many of those words stuck with me. I don't know if their love affair with words will stick with these kids when they turn 15 or 16. Or will they only remember with dread long lists that were meant to be memorised?

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

Sandip Roy