Early June in the United States, and it’s that time of the year when a peculiarly American institution comes into the national news – and, on listening to the news, the feeling of déjà vu is absolutely inescapable. Some years ago, the particular phenomenon of the national spelling bee, over which Indian Americans have come to exercise something of a monopoly, captivated a documentary filmmaker who attempted to leave his viewers “spellbound” with a film of the same title. Many viewers may not find “Spellbound” (2002) as mesmerizing as Hitchcock’s thriller (1945) with which the documentary, barring its name, cannot otherwise be confused, but its director, Jeffrey Blitz, succeeded remarkably well in conveying the palpable tension that participants, their parents, and viewers experience each year as the national spelling bee comes to a nail-biting finish. Who will falter over words such as consuetude, phillumenist, foggara, osteomyelitis, mirin, epiphysis, mirin, ochidore, and juvia? What evidently also struck Blitz is the lightning war – blitzkrieg – with which Indian Americans have staged their recent dominion over this 85-year old competition. For eight of the last twelve years, Indian Americans have been the national champions; and when Animika Veeramani triumphed this year with the word “stromuhr”, which does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary but is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary as a “rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of blood blow through an artery”, she became the third Indian American to triumph in as many years.
As Indian Americans continue their winning spree at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, which annually brings to Washington the winners of the regional bees, this somewhat strange competition is understandably garnering increased attention in India. Writing for the Hindu (6 June 2010) on this year’s competition and its winner Anamika Veeeramani, a 14-year old from the state of Ohio, Narayan Lakshman commenced the article thus: “Is it because of Indian colonial history with Britain or is it something at the level of genetic programming? Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that Indians have a penchant for the English language, a transgenerational, linguistic love affair that gets transmitted even to [the] far-flung diaspora.” That characterization of Indians as having “a penchant for the English language” is seemingly endorsed by a recent article in the New York Times, which reports that American law firms have now begun to outsource legal documents to India not only for legal assistance at a fraction of the cost in the US but also to ensure that correct and indeed elegant English is used in such documents. That penchant will also be self-evident to those who have observed the rise of the English novel in India, from the time of R. K. Narayana, Mulk Raj Anand, and Rajo Rao to G. V. Desani, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai. Nevertheless, anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the manner in which English is relentlessly butchered in Indian newspapers or the shocking errors of grammar and syntax found in most English-language books published in India would have reason to pause over this wildly generous reading of the alleged mastery over English exercised by Indians.
Lakshman’s speculations on the “mystery of the enduring Indian passion for all things English” conclude, however, on a different note. Anamika’s father, on being pressed to explain the success of his daughter, who has set her eyes on Harvard and a career as a cardiovascular surgeon, praised her for dreaming big and attributed her triumph to the family’s “emphasis on education”. This is, of course, very much in keeping with the general perception of Indian Americans as an ambitious, hard-working, and law-abiding ethnic group, and Lakshman all too easily moves to the triumphalist conclusion that “Indians are simply people who believe that hard work, a rigorous education and familial support are the keys to their dreams.” But is it the Indians alone who believe in hard work and the virtues of family life? And, by implication, are we not to believe that other ethnic groups in the US are much less appreciative of education? There is no reason to believe that other immigrant communities are less invested in “the American dream” than Indian Americans; similarly, whatever their facility with the English language, it is far from being demonstrably true that Indians in the US have a greater command over it than those from other immigrant communities.
In a relatively recent book, The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (Los Angeles: UCLA; Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008), I ventured to provide a different reading of the phenomenal success of Indian Americans in the national spelling bee. As I wrote, we must first ponder on how a minority comes to view itself as a ‘model minority’. Here, then, are the relevant passages: “A somewhat more sociological explanation [of the Indian success at the national spelling bee] would perhaps stress the fact that Indian students to a disproportionately high degree come from highly educated families and that knowledge of English, which is almost a native tongue to many Indians in the United States, confers advantages on Indians denied to other ethnic groups. Yet the evidence from the Census Bureau’s latest reports on this question is somewhat ambiguous. The Asian Community Survey of February 2007, based on data collected in 2004, shows that Japanese and even Filipinos far outstrip Indian Americans in describing English as the language that is spoken at home; however, among people who claimed that English was not spoken at their home, or was not at any rate the predominant language of everyday conversation, Indians easily outnumbered all other Asians in describing themselves as speaking English ‘very well’. One might also take the view that all immigrant communities attempt to create particular niches for themselves, and that Indians excel in spelling bees just as Dominicans dominate American baseball and Kenyans and Ethiopians appear to have monopolized long-distance running.
“The difference here is that baseball has a huge following in the Dominican Republic, just as the longer races, extending from 5,000 meters to the marathon, have been part of the repertoire of Kenyans and Ethiopians in their own country for some time; however, by contrast, the ‘Spelling Bee’ is a cultural artifact of American society that has no resonance in India itself. It may well be the case that the present generation of affluent middle-class Indians settled in Bangalore and Mumbai who are plotting futures in the United States may already be preparing their very young children in India for the near future when the family will be comfortably settled in an American suburb and the children will be memorizing the spelling of arcane words, but there is no evidence yet that the institution of the Spelling Bee has winged its way to India. (British rather than American spellings prevail in India, though with Britain’s diminishing influence in Indian life this legacy of the Raj may soon show signs of fracture — and perhaps the American institution of the spelling bee will add its own color to the demise of the world of colour.) When a particular community is viewed as having a stranglehold over some profession, trade, or cultural phenomenon, other communities might be inclined to direct their resources elsewhere. Thus success breeds more success.
“It can well be argued, however, that all these interpretations fall quite short in their explanatory power, and that many Indians themselves might not have an adequate understanding of the manner in which they are able to call upon certain cultural resources. Indian intellectual traditions persist in continuing to emphasize memorization, and various mnemonic devices are still deployed in various Indian traditions for the retention of texts. Thus ‘Indian culture’ may well be a potent factor in understanding why Indian Americans have nearly monopolized the spelling bee, though this is not the Indian culture that students and their parents have in mind when they are probed by outsiders.”
It is unlikely that we will ever know what exactly accounts for the resounding success of Indian Americans at the National Spelling Bee. The 8-year old sister of Kavya Shivashankar, the winner of the 2009 competition, already made it to the pre-semifinal round this year, and two of the three contestants vying for the second position were Indian Americans. To speak only of the near future, the ‘invisible minority’ of which I spoke in my blog yesterday is clearly endeavoring, not without success, to render itself visible as equally the partaker and shaper of “the American dream”.