Indians and the spelling bee in the bonnet

By Bikram Vohra​

Why do so many Americans (and others) get upset that US citizens of Indian origin keep winning the famous Scripps Spelling Be? Ten of the last 14 trophies have gone to those of Indian descent. You read the tweets after every such win and they are outraged, disappointed and just about touch the racist bone.

You have Afro-Americans, Latinos, Chinese immigrants moaning about it always going to Indians. You have uptown white people wondering what is it about these kids from India? Boys and girls equally get that winning trophy spelling last round words like Feldenkrais and Gesellschaft.

In 2019, the eight finalists were: Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, and Rohan Raja spelling words like auslaut, erysipelas, bougainvillea, aiguillette, pendeloque, palama, cernuous, odylic.

In 2018, Karthik Nemmani spelt koinonia. In 2017, Ananya Vinay    marocain. In 2016, Jairam Hathwar and Nihar Janga — Feldenkrais, Gesellschaft. In 2015, Gokul Venkatachalam and Vanya Shivashankar — nunatak, scherenschnitte. In 2014, Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar — feuilleton, stichomythia.

So why is it that even on a losing year, Indians are in the run and make up most of the finalists?

It is not difficult to explain why there is this ‘imbalance’. Indians, ever since Macaulay shoved his minutes down their throats, have been educated in a learn by rote manner. You can like it or hate the system for its one dimensional approach, but it has nourished the gene that promotes the ‘by hearting’ of information. I use the phrase lightly to underscore the Indianness of the English language.

To back this trait, Indian parents not only engage in sentry duty on their kids,  but give them hours of attention by ensuring they know everything backwards. During the examination period it is almost a frenetic exercise and there are several dry runs.  Ergo, recalling from memory is intrinsic to Indian kids. Their desire to excel and not let down mum, dad, sibling, grandparents and sundry aunts and uncles as well as the prying neighbours is so overwhelming, it is almost cruel.

In any case, the Western English-speaking nations have stopped teaching their children English by the rules. The famous crimson-covered Wren and Martin grammar book that is a tome and is all about sentence structure and participles and clauses and analysis was discarded long back.

Today, a school in the West would be hardplaced to have a mid level student parse a sentence, if he or she even knew what that word meant.

India is one of the few countries where the book is still the cornerstone of learning this language. And dictation is integral to it. Now, Indians might be a bit stilted in the use of language (return back, off light, meet me at the backside, when your house coming, where you put up, passing out of class) and have an inclination for big words (though not in the Shashi Tharoor league) when simple ones will do and even though they tend to  float into purple prose at the basic level, their command of ye olde English is still very strong.

That paradox is the funny part. They can cripple the purist with stuff like ‘do the needful’ and ‘do one thing’) and then come up aces when it is a writing or speaking challenge. No split infinitives, no mixed metaphors, no fractured grammar. And as I said, they are excellent at boning up. If you see an Indian kid who knows Webster’s or Oxford inside out,  it is no surprise.

With all this going in their favour, it should come as no surprise that with such rigorous training for their brain cells, they should win word games, spelling bees, general knowledge quizzes and their ilk. If they don’t win lock, stock and barrel, they will triumph subject, object and predicate,

Let it go, these kids deserve it.

Bikram is consultant editor to Khaleej TImes, everyday humour is his forte.

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