Sunday, May 29, 2016

Gesellschaft. Feldenkrais. Who knew!

An epic battle ended with the contestants declared as co-winners.  No, I am not referring to the Warriors v. Thunder, which preoccupies this couch potato.  I am referring to the recently concluded Spelling Bee:
Crowd favorite Nihar Saireddy Janga, a fifth-grader who charmed the audience and many on social media with his slight voice and knowledge of obscure words, and Jairam Hathwar, whose brother Sriram Hathwar was a co-winner in 2014, were declared this year’s champions.
The two Indian-American boys squared off against each other for more than 20 rounds
Indian-Americans winning the Spelling Bee is not anything new.  In fact, it will be news only if the champion is not an Indian-American!

I wrote about Indian-Americans and the Spelling Bee, back in 2010.  It feels wonderful to be able to look back at my own work from six years ago and present it again, especially to an audience that did not know me then ;)
Here is that essay:

It is almost a non-story anymore when an Indian- American kid wins the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Last Friday, for the third year in a row and the eighth time in the past 12 years, an Indian-American student won it all. This year’s champion, Anamika Veeramani, won after out-dueling another Indian-American, Shantanu Srivatsa.
The linkage between the spelling bee and Indian- Americans started back in 1985 when Balu Natarajan won the event. That “kid” is now Dr. Natarajan, a physician with a specialty in sports medicine, who notes on his Web site that “winning the ‘bee’ was definitely an important experience,” and adds that he is more proud of being a good doctor and the work he does with his patients.
Given Natarajan’s profession, and the career choices of quite of a few other past winners, it is not a surprise that this year’s champion also plans to go into medicine. Anamika wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon.
It is far more intriguing that these champion spellers do not seem to be keen on careers in English literature. It is not that these contestants lack an interest in literature, either — one, who is not even a teenager yet, lists “Gone With the Wind” as a favorite book.
Despite the rather jaded reaction to yet another Indian- American winning the bee, the champion’s first and last names caught my attention. There was a fantastic message in her first name being Anamika, a Sanskrit name that literally translates to “without a name.” Like “anonymous.”
One might wonder then why parents would name a child “anonymous.” Well, it’s because there is a much more profound and philosophical meaning behind that name. “Anamika” means that there are not enough words to describe the value, beauty and importance — the equivalent in English is when we say something like “there are no words to describe it.”
Thus, it is quite a linguistic irony that the Spelling Bee recognizes kids who are talented with words, while this year’s winner has a name that means there aren’t enough words to describe her preciousness!
The champion’s last name, Veeramani, suggested an origin in Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. Tamil Nadu, or the “land of the Tamils,” is where most of India’s Tamil-speaking population is concentrated. A significant minority of neighboring Sri Lanka’s population is also Tamil.
Having been raised a Tamil, with immediate and extended families still living in Tamil Nadu, I naturally was curious about Anamika’s parents. I even checked with my father to find out whether we might know them, and was a tad disappointed at being unable to bridge the degrees of separation. But that’s understandable, given that there are an estimated 75 million Tamils worldwide.
Anamika’s parents’ names turn out to be equally cinematic of sorts. The father’s name is Alagaiya and the mother is Malar. In the Tamil language, “malar,” as a noun, means a flower. The same word also can be used as a verb to mean “to bloom.” The father’s name is derived from a Tamil word for beauty — “Alagu.”
Typically it is only in fictional worlds that someone named “flower” would marry one named “beauty” and then together they would have a child named “anonymous,” who would go on to win a championship that is all about words. Real life, yet again, is more exciting and dramatic than fiction.
The Indian-American dimension of the spelling bee is as much a story of immigration to the United States as it is a reflection of a common heritage of having been British colonies, which is the reason English is the lingua franca. America and India were once a part of the British Empire, where the sun never set.
One particular connection is quite poignant. Lord Cornwallis, who was the governor-general of British India from 1786 to 1793, previously had served the crown as an army officer during the American War of Independence. It is strange that after surrendering to George Washington and returning to England with Benedict Arnold, Cornwallis was rewarded with a powerful and influential posting in India.
To paraphrase Paul Harvey, now you know “the rest of the story” behind the non-story of yet another Indian-American winning the spelling bee.

Score this for the mashed potatoes :)


Ramesh said...

Very ironic that an American who can't spell is writing about somebody winning the Spelling Bee contest :) Its actually quite ironic that the event is being held in the US at all - considering that the country as a whole can't spell :):) No wonder Indian Americans win it all the time - they at least have some of the Queen's English in their genes !!!!

I am also very impressed to note that you even know the Warriors are playing the Thunder. What's happened to you ......

Anne in Salem said...

Let the Queen spell her words her way; we'll spell them our way. She lost any input into our spelling 240 years ago.

Who are the Warriors??? Is that basketball?

Is the connection between spelling and medicine a facility with memorization? I hear that ESPN broadcast at least part of the bee. Bravo for recognizing the brain games in addition to athletics.

Anonymous said...

This answers my question about what language you speak. When I looked up Chennai before I saw that majority of the population speaks Tamil, but giving the diversity of people and languages in India, I didn't want to take that guess. By the way, it doesn't surprise me that Indian-Americans are better in English than Americans. When I first moved in the US, I was surprised that I sometimes spelled things better than Americans, and I am still pretty fresh to this language. Misha

Sriram Khé said...

Ramesh, what Anne is politely sayin' is this: the queen can kiss our ass (not arse!) ;)

Nope, there is no link between the medicine and spelling bee. It is merely a correlation. I suppose it could be that most spelling champions are also highly interested and able in learning, and many of these capable students gravitate to medicine as well.

Good to see you here, Misha. You and Anne live in the same town--a small world this is ;)
Yes, Ramesh and I grew up speaking Tamil. Now he speaks the Queen's English while holding his pinkie out when drinking tea ;)

Anne in Salem said...

Ramesh - key word is "politely." I would never tell the Queen or anyone else to kiss that particular body part, in American or in English.

Sriram, thanks for the laugh. 11 hour day - I needed it.

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