Kavya Shivashankar will be on stage on prime time this weekend, along with a dozen other Indians. But Samir Patel will not be present, he will only watch the finals on television. Like Samir and millions of Indians, I will also be watching every minute of the show, watching gawky kids in braces and pigtails spell words I have never heard of.
It’s Bee-time again. Longtime readers of this blog know me as a Spelling Bee addict. In the past, I have stood up for Samir Patel when he lost in the final few rounds of last year’s Bee. The Wall Street Journal compared him to Dan Marino, that great NFL Hall of Famer who never won a Super Bowl for his team. But winning is about a lot more things than talent – it’s also about luck and circumstance and fate.. Samir was just unlucky last year.
There is something about the Spelling Bee which stirs Indian hearts. Much as I like to make fun of desi parents and their obsession with the Bee, the fact remains that I am bitten by the bug too. Why else would I tape the shows every year and watch each one of them, or queue up on a blustery winter day to watch the Broadway show, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, shivering with excitement (okay, that was probably just the cold). The show itself has stopped running, I hear they ran out of viewers after all the Indians had finished watching it. But you can still play the Spelling Bee game at its website.
None of us would ever dream of watching any “sport” that involves gawky ten year olds in braces and pigtails (okay, apart from gymnastics). So what is it about the Spelling Bee that attracts Indians?
I have thought long and deep about this, and here are my hypotheses:
Hypothesis 1: All Indians are geeks, it’s just the degree that varies.
– As geeks, we love learning useless trivia. We love quiz contests on anything from management to sports, we can?t even resist General knowledge tests. In short, we get terribly excited about anything that involves reading bookloads of absolutely useless trivia.
– Being true geeks, we also love jargon. Any career we seek out has to have its own dictionary of jargon. There is the geekworld of engineers and doctors, with their own arcane language that outsiders can never understand. There is the other geekworld of software professionals with their own unique incomprehensible language. Even if you have never entered any of these worlds, you still cannot escape the geekworld of finance. Finally, if you think you are a complete non-geek and stay well away from all these obvious geek-lures, you will still end up getting enticed by the greatest geek temptress of all – Management and MBAdom.
So is it really surprising that we choose to watch a bunch of nine and ten year olds mouthing incomprehensible words that sound like some jargon we are not really clued into? No, rather, we finding ourselves wanting to learn all about this new jargon (which just happens to be plain English).
Hypothesis 2: It’s just a continuation of ancient tradition:
The sages had their vedas and assorted shlokas, we have our own different jargon. Like the sages, we also believe in starting young. So if children learnt incomprehensible Sanskrit shlokas in ancient gurukuls, now they learn equally incomprehensible English words at a young age. It’s the same thing, really.
Hypothesis 3: It’s all the fault of CBSE and the education system:
Lots of things are, of course. Plus, it’s very convenient to blame our education system for everything. But you will agree, everyone in India grows up learning to memorize everything that is printed on a sheet (and lots of things that aren’t). We grow up memorizing everything from multiplication tables to railway time tables.
At some point, memorizing stuff becomes our hobby. This is why we know all the statistics on Tendulkar’s ODI centuries in Australia (one) and Kishore Kumar’s wives (four) or Sridevi’s sari changes in a single song of Chandni (seventy?).
Hypothesis 4: We like learning languages:
Each of us knows at least two languages. Some of us know three and even four or five languages. This might be a survival instinct in a country where everyone knows swear words in three different languages. You just want to make sure you understand what everyone is saying about you.? But you’d also like to know a different language just so you can swear back at them without getting beaten up.
Hypothesis 5: (Indian) English is our real mother tongue:
Although we can speak four or five different languages, we secretly really like English the most. Probably because this has the most swear words and jargon. The whole world, after all, writes the open source code for English, unlike the open source code for Marathi which is developed by only a few millions. So we mix English into our Hindi and Marathi, Tamil and Telugu, and we love to participate in code development for English by coining new words.
Not only do we love the Spelling Bee, we are really good at it, judging by the number of Indian kids who make it to the finals each year.
Since ESPN broadcasts the Bee each year, this should qualify as a “sport”? It must be one of the last sports we really excel at.
All this means only one thing. Two, actually. We should start a Spelling Bee competition in India.? Then we should lobby strongly for the Bee to be made part of the next Olympic Games.
Now that we have started losing even at kabaddi, the Spelling Bee may be our last great hope to win an Olympic Gold.