The Indian community in the United States spells success in many ways, including in some cases, k-n-a-i-d-e-l, s-t-r-o-m-u-h-r and f-e-u-i-l-l-e-t-o-n. These are all winning words for Scripps National Spelling Bee champions in recent years. An Indian-American student, Balu Natarajan, first won the contest in 1985, followed by Rageshree Ramachandran three years later. However, Indian-American students have been on a bee-spree since Nupur Lala won in 1999, and have emerged winners on 12 occasions in the past 16 years. This year, the community, not content with producing just one champion again, threw up two—joint winners Sriram Hathwar and Ansun Sujoe—only the fourth time the trophy has been shared since the contest began in 1925.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is a big event in the US. It has been telecast live on the sports channel ESPN since 1994. Lala was one of the subjects of the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, which followed eight finalists through the 1999 championship. The 2009 winner Kavya Shivashankar and her family were invited to meet US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation’, an exhibit at the famous Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC, that’s open from February 27 to August 16, features spelling bee champions from the community. Winners take home $30,000 cash and other prizes, and do the rounds of national television shows, all of this before they leave eighth grade, the cut-off point for the bee.
And then, what? The winners are typically 12-14 years old, and the most recent ones, of course, are still in school. But a look at previous winners shows they are pursuing a wide range of careers. The first Indian-American winner, Natarajan, practises sports medicine in Chicago. Pratyush Buddiga, the 2002 champion, is a professional poker player.
Lala, who kicked off the recent trend of Indian-Americans winning the nationals, says she had no idea what she was getting into when she entered her first spelling bee at school in Florida. “The reason why I entered spelling bee at all is that we were offered extra credit for entering the spelling bee and I badly needed it because I was terrible at grammar,” she recalls. Lala has now completed her master’s degree and will start medical school in Arkansas later this year.
Shivashankar and 2008 winner Sameer Mishra are attending Columbia University in New York. They believe their national wins might have eased their