Kansas gal Kavya Shivshankar bee-comes spelling princess

Washington,May 29: There was an air of inevitability as yet another precocious middle-schooler of Indian origin won the US National Spelling Bee Indian-American Kavya Shivashankar lifts the trophy after winning the 2009 National Spelling Bee, in Washington.

championship for 2009 on Thursday night, extending a decade long run in which Indian-Americans kids have won the title seven times out of ten.

Kavya Shivshankar of Olethe, Kansas, effortlessly spelt the word Laodicean — which means indifferent or lukewarm especially in matters of religion — to claim the title after her only remaining American opponent Tim Ruiter flubbed Maecenas, which means a generous benefactor.

Indians aren’t Laodicean in the usual sense. In fact, when it comes to spelling bee championship especially, they have made it a rite — or write — of passage. To the point of being devout.

Some eleven million American schoolkids participated in the National Spelling Bee championships this year, and when the final 293 made the cut to Washington DC (which hosts the grand finale) this weekend, there were 32 kids of Indian origin.

It was the usual 10-15 per cent, which is handsomely disproportionate to the Indian-American population in the US, which at around 2 million is less than one per cent.

There were 14 ‘desi’ kids in the 41 who made the semi-final round in Washington DC (telecast on ESPN), and six among the 11 who made the final rounds (telecast on ABC network on prime time 8 pm to 10.30 pm).

When that was whittled down to three by bedtime when many kids were nodding off, one lone American boy was up against two Indian-American girls — Kavya, and Aishwarya Pastapur from Springfield, Illinois, who exited soon after when she made a meal of ‘menhir.’

Kavya, who had finished fourth last year, lived up to her billing as a hot favourite this year. Seemingly encyclopaedic in her knowledge of words, she wore down the final eleven, cracking words such as ergasia, escritoire, hydrargyrum, blancmange, baignoire, huisache, ecossaise, diacoele, bouquiniste, isagoge, and phoresy. Yeah, don’t even try.

Kavya’s victory means back-to-back titles for Indian-American kids after Sameer Mishra took the title last year. Previous winners in this last decade include Nupur Lala (1999), George Thampy (2000), Pratyush Buddiga (2002), Sai Gunturi (2003), Anurag Kashyap (2005) and Sameer Mishra (2008). Chicagoan Balu Natarajan was the first Indian-American to win the title in 1985, followed by Rageshree Ramachandran in 1987.

Why Indian-American kids have begun to dominate Spelling Bee (and its companion event the Geographic Bee) isn’t a mystery anymore. Parental and peer pressure and inspiration have resulted in almost every Indian household pushing their kids into nationwide competitions in every sphere of school life, not just spelling competitions. The results show up in many school-level academic competitions.

A Wall Street Journal story in 2003 that was headlined ”Why Johnny Can’t Add But Suresh Venkatsubramanian Can” gave birth to the joke that ”if your name is Venkatsubramanian you can pretty much spell anything.” Of course, it does not account for why Polish kids don’t do as well; there’s a small matter of English language legacy too.

What’s undeniable is that with the passage of time, the Spelling Bee championship itself has taken a new aura, with big time prize money (Kavya picked up $40,000 in cash and prizes and will most likely breeze through college on scholarships that could amount to as much as $100,000) and wall-to-wall media coverage.

Kavya’s role model in this regard is Nupur Lala, the 1999 winner who became somewhat of a media darling and went on to feature in a documentary called Spellbound on the Spelling Bee event. Lala is now a researcher at MIT. Kavya wants to be a neurosurgeon.

On Thursday night, the Grand Hyatt auditorium where the finale took place had all the glitz and drama of Roland Garros or Wimbledon, with excited anchors whispering between hushed suspense, expert commentary, cut-outs, commercials, and profiles of the hottest spelling stars.

In one profile cut out, Aishwarya Pastipur introduced her grandmother, who had come from India to see her grand-daughter participate. In the audience was Dr Jill Biden, vice-president Joe Biden’s wife and a past state spelling champion.

Kavya’s world will be a whirl for the next 48 hours as she will be rushed from studio to studio for interviews, starting with an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday morning. Across America, many Indian parents will be sitting their kids across the study table to prepare for Spelling Bee 2010.