How shlokas, mantras put Bee in Akshay’s bonnet

MADHU GOPINATH RAO writes from New York City: Anurag Kashyap, Sai R. Gunturi, Pratyush Buddiga, George Abraham Thampy, Nupur Lala.

Do these names ring a bell?

They are not up-and-coming scientists; well, not yet. These are the names of Indian-American kids who snared seven of the seven ‘Scripps National Spelling Bee’ contests between 1999 and 2005. In 2005, the top four finishers in the Spelling Bee were kids of Indian descent, including Anurag Kashyap, the winner.

To a query, “Cochabamba is the third-largest conurbation in what country?” by Alex Trebek of Jeopardy fame, your answer may have been “Huh?” but 11-year-old Akshay Rajagopal answered “Bolivia” to clinch the 20th annual ‘National Geographic Bee’ on Wednesday last.

The Geographic Bee is on the same lines as the Spelling Bee, but covers geography to the latter’s English spellings. Akshay not only won but he did so without dropping a single question—only the second time that’s ever happened in the Geographic Bee’s 20-year history. Nikhil Desai, Milan Sandhu were in the final 8 as well.

“Conurbation”, by the way means “a metropolitan area”.

In recent years, descendants of Indian immigrants—less than 1 per cent of the US population—have dominated some of these academic contests, snatching top honours.

In Spelling Bee, for instance, they made up more than 30 of the 273 contestants in 2005, not to mention hogging the top-four spots. Seems like Kenyans running away with marathon medals? This is not short of amazing. Amazing, especially given the history—spelling bees games were toyed with to help improve English in Indian-American kids.

The epiphany that is believed to be a corner stone of this success was a realization that Indian-American were not good at—hold your breath—spelling.

In 1993, a group of influential Indian-Americans noticed that children of immigrants from India were doing very well in the math section of the SAT, but finishing only average in the verbal category. They wanted to fix that, and came up with this idea: Hold spelling bees.

The idea caught on and how ; the results are there for every one to see.

In 2005, everyone from Wall Street Journal to New York Times to lavished praise on this mini-phenomenon. 2006 – 2007 have been a relatively calm time for the desi speller, but with Anurag’s win a week ago in the Geographic Bee, the spot light is back on.

What’s the secret to this amazing success story?

It ought to be more than just the diligence post the epiphany?

Education is a big part of the Indian culture. It comes first. Many a movies have parodied how Indian-American parents push, rather aggressively, to ensure their kids strive to become doctors and lawyers than pursue other avenues. A vast majority of them, do end up becoming lawyers and doctors and this is reflected in how Indian-Americans as an ethnic group are positioned. Per TIME’s 2007 almanac, they are the richest ethnic group with above average median incomes in city after city.

Secondly, many of the Indians who come to America have had the luxury of a good education and a sound grounding in academics. They’re smart, focused and driven; and that rubs off on their children. Thanks to US Immigration laws, doctors, engineers and researchers have formed the vast majority of the immigrants over the last few decades. So these children are the kids of parents who themselves competed––probably at a ferocious level––to get into the best Indian schools, and then to get to the US.

Another factor could be the way India children have been schooled over the generations. According to an article in Language in India, a monthly online journal, memorization and recitation are big components in the education process. We all remember the multiplication tables from well before we could comprehend its actual meaning and use. This is touted to have its roots in the age old gurukula system where a lot of the learning was vocal and by repetition of shlokas and mantras.

Whatever the reasons, the achievements of these Indian-American kids is nothing short of spectacular.

So how does one sum up the possible reasons for this success?

How about one from the horse’s mouth?

The 1985 winner Balu Natarajan, now a 33-year-old doctor of sports medicine, describes the contest as a “a bridge between that which is Indian and that which is American” — that’s quite simple and easy for all to understand?

Photograph: courtesy Huffington Post