Miscellany — From the May 2017 issue

Bee-Brained

Inside the competitive Indian-American spelling community

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The final two contestants of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, held just outside Washington last May, had gone head-to-head for ten rounds. Nihar Janga, a toothy eleven-year-old with a bowl cut and the vocal pitch of a cartoon character, delighted the audience by breaking with custom: instead of asking the official pronouncer for definitions, he provided them himself. Taoiseach: “Is this an Irish prime minister?” (Yes.) Biniou: “Is this a Breton bagpipe?” (Right again.) His opponent, Jairam Hathwar, a stoic thirteen-year-old, had been favored to win, in large part because his older brother, Sriram, had won in 2014.

Illustrations by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom

Illustrations by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom

But Jairam was hesitating. The kids had made it through their school and regional contests, in New York and Texas, respectively, as well as a series of tests at nationals, where they handled such unpronounceables as gyttja, chremslach, and uintjie. Now he was being asked to spell drahthaar, an obscure German breed of dog. Nihar knew this one. Jairam didn’t. He made an attempt, “D-R-A-A-T-H-A-A-R.” Nihar shook his head. When Jairam finished, a bell dinged to indicate his error; he blanched and went to his seat. Then Nihar leaned forward, thrust his hands in Jairam’s face, and began, expressionlessly, to clap. That is how Nihar Janga came to be called the Machine.

A few months later, on a Friday night in August, I was standing with the Machine in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Tampa, Florida, when his former rival walked through the door. Nihar charged over and squealed, “Jairam! I missed you!” Jairam took a step back. “Hi, Nihar,” he said. The two had ended up as cochampions at Scripps (a more common occurrence lately) thanks to a quirk in spelling-bee rules: when there are two people left onstage and one of them misspells in a round, the other has to correctly spell a final word in order to win. After Jairam flubbed drahthaar, Nihar erred on ayacahuite, sending the contest into twelve more rounds before a tie was declared. The prize for each boy was $40,000.

Nihar and Jairam were friends, having met on the spelling circuit a year earlier. Nihar was the more excitable of the pair, prone to gleeful shouting, sometimes at inappropriate moments. After Scripps, he’d insisted to me that he offered the definitions of words because it made him feel more confident. He also said that his applause at the misspelling of drahthaar had been meant to cheer Jairam up, not to intimidate him. Jairam, polite and good-natured, accepted this — or, in any case, said that he did.

We were in Tampa for the championships of another annual spelling competition, this one sponsored by a nonprofit called the North South Foundation, open only to kids of Indian descent. Earlier in the year, more than 3,300 children had competed in regional contests. Around 300 of them advanced to the finals. That weekend, the North South Foundation wasn’t just holding a spelling bee; it was also running contests in subjects including math and neuroscience, and the organization gives out college scholarships to poor high-school students in India. But the spelling bee is by far its best known and most significant event. For the past decade, Indian Americans have dominated the Scripps National Spelling Bee — among last year’s top ten were seven Indian spellers — and all the recent champions competed at the N.S.F. bee first. Nihar told me that his experience there established his training regimen. Also, he said, “If I hadn’t done N.S.F., I would have felt very scared spelling in front of a lot of people.”

The N.S.F. bee is modeled after Scripps, though unlike at Scripps, where children up to eighth grade compete against one another, N.S.F. is split into a junior division (third grade and below) and a senior division (fourth through eighth). Nihar had won a junior bee, but neither he nor Jairam had managed to win at the senior level. Scripps champions are not allowed to compete, so this year they came as volunteers.

I proposed that we go for dinner at the hotel’s burger place, and invited their older siblings — Nihar’s sister Navya, who had dabbled in spelling but was more interested in neuroscience, and Sriram, the former Scripps winner — to come along. I explained to them that my interest in hanging out was personal. Back in the mid-Nineties, I had been a preteen, Indian-American spelling nerd, too. I made it to the Scripps Bee in 1994 and placed forty-fourth. The following year I returned and tied for third place. My losing word was periplus — “a voyage or a trip around something (as an island or a coast).” I spelled it with an extra -se at the end.

The N.S.F. bee was only a year old when I got into the spelling scene, and I hadn’t heard of it. It was a different time to be Indian-American. No Mindy Kaling or Aziz Ansari, no Kamala Harris or Nikki Haley. When I was growing up I’d tell kids that I was Indian, and they’d assume I meant Native American. Only two Indian Americans had ever won at Scripps, and it seemed unimaginable that twenty years later people would consider spelling a characteristically Indian-American pursuit.

Our group sat down to dinner. Nihar announced that he wanted chocolate milk. “Sriram, what are you having?” Jairam whispered to his brother. “I’ll just have the same thing as you.” They’re vegetarians; they both got mushroom burgers. Nihar wanted pizza. I hit them with my most pressing question. Did they know how to spell periplus?

“Definition?” Nihar asked.

“Circumnavigation around an island.”

The boys turned to each other for a silent consultation. “So, P-E-R-I —” Jairam said.

“ — P-L-U-S,” Nihar finished. Non-spellers might assume that mastering competitive spelling depends on rote memorization. Not exactly. Though Jairam and Nihar both recalled having encountered periplus, neither remembered how to spell the word. They derived the spelling from the definition — guessing, for example, that it must start with peri-, meaning “around.”

Nihar told Jairam that I’d tied for third place. “Oh, that’s really good,” Jairam said magnanimously. I received this like a benediction.

Our waiter came over, and I made sure he knew that he was serving the 2016 Scripps cochampions. He was impressed. His name was Chris, he said, and he’d won his school bee years ago, but lost at a regional competition in Orlando. His losing word was coelacanth. Nihar spelled it for him.

When it was time to order dessert, Chris explained the restaurant’s gimmick, that everything was served in mason jars. S’mores in a jar. Key lime pie in a jar. For once, the kids seemed puzzled. Sriram asked, “What’s a mason jar?”

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