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Miscellany — From the May 2017 issue

Bee-Brained

Inside the competitive Indian-American spelling community

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My route to the National Spelling Bee was by way of Edmond, Oklahoma. In 1993, my family moved from Saskatchewan, Canada, because my father, a doctor, was starting a residency. When we arrived, he paged through the phone book until he found an Indian-sounding surname. This was how our family would make friends.

The local community of Indian-American immigrants was close-knit and welcoming. On weekends, people would convene in the morning at a local Hindu temple, and then a larger group would meet in the evening for a party at someone’s home. We’d load rice and curry onto double-stacked paper plates that bowed under the weight of our meals. The women would sit gossiping in the kitchen. The men would congregate in the living room to discuss cricket and politics. I would be with my older sister and the other girls in a daughter’s bedroom looking at magazines; we brushed one another’s hair and talked about Brad Pitt. During those gatherings, I could sense the mildest current of academic competition — here my social status, and therefore that of my parents, was determined partly by how well I did in school compared with these peers. I felt an added sense of pressure because we were newcomers.

Source photograph of Nihar Janga and Jairam at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Alex Wong/Getty Images

Source photograph of Nihar Janga and Jairam at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Alex Wong/Getty Images

At the time, the Indian-American star in town was a kid named Bernie George. My mother set out to make our family name by ensuring that my sister and I bested him at everything he did. Bernie was a well-rounded competitor in math and academic bowls, at which my sister excelled; my contribution would be to face off against him in our regional spelling bee, which he’d won the previous year. To prepare, I memorized all the words in a booklet provided by Scripps. The unquestioning allegiance with which my sister and I took to the family project could be explained by noting that Indian culture, like many Asian cultures, is communalistic — there is no project except the family project — but that seems unnecessarily academic. The salient point is this: I beat Bernie.

Not that the high lasted long. When I went on to nationals, I choked. Asked to spell ecstasize, I began, “E-C-S-T-A-T —” I knew my error right away, but the spelling bee bars contestants from starting over when they’ve messed up. So, just like that, I was out. We, the Varas of Edmond, were out. But that only fed our ambition to try harder the next year.

It came down to my mom and me. My dad was occupied with his residency; my sister decided that she’d rather spend her free time swimming or playing tennis. My mom and I were the dedicated linguaphiles. She often told me stories of her childhood, in a small town in South India. Her mother, a housewife from the age of fourteen, had pushed her four daughters toward education and self-determined lives. Their language was Telugu, but my mom started studying English in sixth grade, and as a teenager she became obsessed with British writers — William Shakespeare, Georgette Heyer, Thomas Hardy. By the time she and my father moved to Canada, when she was twenty-nine, she was fluent in English and had a master’s degree in political science. She taught me to read when I was three years old.

My mom wrote to Scripps asking for copies of the word lists from previous bees. We’d spend entire weekends studying together. She’d read a word aloud, and I’d spell it. I still have a box of papers with exotic words written in my mom’s handwriting. Sgaw. Apothem and apothegm. Next to each word is a collection of check marks and X’s. My mom went to such great lengths on my behalf that she became an expert speller herself, and when Scripps held a just-for-fun bee for parents, her team placed second.

But because she had a job, as a family counselor, she wasn’t home when I returned from school. So she came up with an ingenious method to allow me to study alone: she taped herself reading the words and their spellings. I’d lie on the carpet in the living room, listening to her voice on the cassette player. Between each word and its spelling, I’d hit pause to test myself. I told my friends that my mom made me do it. The truth was that I loved spelling.

This was not cool to admit — even dorkier than it would be today. No one cared about the Scripps National Spelling Bee except the spellers and their families. The prize money for the champion was $5,000. A winner might get mentioned in the local paper and possibly make an appearance on Good Morning America, but the accolades pretty much ended there.

My first appearance at Scripps, however, marked a turning point. That year, the bee’s final rounds were broadcast on ESPN’s daytime TV. Later they moved to prime time, airing to ever-greater enthusiasm. In 2000, Myla Goldberg published Bee Season, a well-received spelling-bee novel; two years later, the documentary Spellbound was released; and in 2006 came another popular film, Akeelah and the Bee. By the time Nihar and Jairam went to battle last May, the championship cash prize had increased eightfold, and Amazon Kindle, the event’s presenting sponsor, was featuring star spellers in commercials. Nearly a million people tuned in. While Nihar was spelling onstage, Lil Wayne was tweeting about him.

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