Under the Spell of the Bee

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.

10 thoughts on “Under the Spell of the Bee

  1. Hehe, nice analysis. The interest in quiz and trivia is kind of true. I remember, back in India, ESPN used to broadcast and we used to watch it if everything else is boring. And the major attraction would be identifying the Indians- “Oh,he is an Indian”, “Oh, tamil payyan!” Just by the looks of it. Good fun!

  2. Pingback: Under the Spell of the Bee | DesiPundit

  3. Adithya: Oh yes, I keep rooting for all the desi looking kids 🙂 Their names are a giveaway anyway..

    Candadai Tirumalai: You are right, I can never understand this fascination with growing ten meter long moustaches and pulling cars with teeth, or things like that.

    km: Spelling Bee steroids – that’s a thought 🙂 I have heard of people take pills before exams to avoid sleeping. Maybe there is also a pill which will stimulate the right brain ? 😮

  4. the fact of the matter is that these ABCDs are meant only to be doctors and engineers and earn obscene amounts of salaries latter on in life so that they parents can fix then up with a susheel indian bahu! how convenient!

    education is the only hope for a better life and still alot of indians believe in this.

  5. Funny analysis, but I think it’s incorrect in many points. Your analysis would apply only to Indian-born and raised kids. I’m not sure, but it seems like all of these kids are American-born and don’t have to worry about CBSE; I’m also guessing that, like me, they speak mostly English in the house, and all English amongst friends. I grew up with Marathi, but I stopped speaking it when I was 5.

    It’s probably a combination of factors, but I’d guess that it’s mostly Indian-style parental pressure on academics and quantifiable subjects (math, science, spelling, maps/geography, handwriting quality, grammar, etc.).

    This would also explain why there are so few American-born Indian artists or non-academic types (with a few notable exceptions).

  6. I agree with Kedar in this regard. Indian parents (in India or abroad) give a lot of importance on subjects like science and grammar and so on. You tell them you like to study history or fine arts and all hell breaks loose. I know this issue is slightly off-topic but it’s a major influence behind Indian’s success in spelling bee contests…

  7. arjun singh: That’s a sweeping generalization on ABCD career choices, right?

    kedar: On the CBSE issue, while kids born here are obviously not going to learn in the CBSE system, their parents are successful products of CBSE/ Indian education system (I am guessing most of the parents are DBDs). These parents grew up memorizing stuff, and would like their kids to do the same. Certainly, memorizing multiplication tables does help. The GRE (and to a lesser extent, GMAT) need you to memorize words too. So the Indian education system of memorizing has an indirect impact on the kids..

    You are right that parents put a lot of pressure on kids to do well in academics. That is again a hangover from the Indian system where careers can be made or broken on a single percentage point..

    Avik: I agree completely. In India, of course, studying history or fine arts doesn’t lead to lucrative career choices..plus, the way history is taught doesn’t make it sound too interesting.

  8. Pingback: Global Voices Online » India: Spelling Bee in the US

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