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.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!
The two Indian-American boys squared off against each other for more than 20 rounds
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 :)