Y Indins Spl Gud?

4 minute read
Pico Iyer

My ancestral homeland has rarely produced the world’s greatest athletes: it took India, the second largest nation on earth, 108 years to win its first individual Olympic gold medal (in 2008, in the 10-m air-rifle event), and although 108 was a highly auspicious number for that champion Indian mental athlete, Gautama Buddha, it’s still a long time to wait. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, my motherland of 1 billion citizens came away with a single bronze, leaving it tied with the likes of Barbados (pop. 270,000) and Kuwait, in 71st place. Tiny Cuba, with a population smaller than that of Mumbai, claimed 29 medals in that same Olympiad, which means, by my reckoning, that one Cuban has roughly the same athletic strength as 2,600 of my compatriots.

Give us a chance to spell cyanophycean, though, and we are mighty. The winner of the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee, just concluded, was Arvind Mahankali, who (I like to claim) shares my blood, my very essence. The second-place finisher was also of Indian descent. So was the third. Last year the top three were also all ethnically Indian. In fact, Indians have claimed the crown six years in a row, as 11-year-olds grapple with such words as dehnstufe, schwannoma and schwarmerei (shouldn’t it be Germans dominating this competition?).

(PHOTOS: Words with Foes: Spelling Bee Contestants Put on Their Game Faces)

What Venezuelans are to Miss Universe contests, my people are to spelling ptyalagogue and paryphodrome. As Jamaicans seem to rule the 100-m sprint (whether they represent Britain or Canada or even, at times, Jamaica), so my folks seem to be the fastest minds on the single track (studies have found that South Indians speak more rapidly than any group on earth). This may be no more useful a form of gymnastics than those I once witnessed at a showcase auditorium filled with 5-year-old acrobats in North Korea, but the fact remains that the champion spellers of the U.S. even have names most Americans can’t spell — whether it’s Snigdha Nandipati (last year’s champion) or Nupur Lala (a star in the documentary Spellbound).

Indians have been famous, of course, for their feats of memorization since the time of Macaulay — it’s part of a traditional pundit’s training of a child — and I met a 79-year-old professor in Varanasi not long ago who began reciting the first three books of Paradise Lost to me. But rote-learning skills alone don’t explain why so much of the brainpower in Silicon Valley comes from the Indian Institutes of Technology. Indian Americans are not only the highest-earning ethnic group in the U.S., but more Indian Americans in the U.S. hold higher degrees (almost 40%) than Americans in general hold first degrees (28%).

It’s intriguing to think of what specious explanations may account for this: I remember, at the age of 2, trying to read my local newspaper of record (London’s Times) every morning, while the toddlers around me were doing more practical things. I don’t think the impetus came from my parents: India may be known for its tigers and its mothers, but rarely in the same sentence. The government in New Delhi has never been compelled, as the one in Seoul was in 2011, to impose a curfew to prevent parents from sending their kids to endless after-school training, night after night. Perhaps the spelling domination has now become just a self-perpetuating pattern, the way a few major-league baseball players from the small Dominican Republic city of San Pedro de Macorís have led to dozens in every generation since.

(MORE: What You Missed While Not Watching the National Spelling Bee Finals)

Besides, spelling is no guarantee of moral or emotional or even intellectual success; ABCs don’t always lead to Ph.D.s. And in terms of impressive knowledge, learning a dictionary by heart doesn’t begin to touch the range required even in a game of Jeopardy. Knowing how to cross your t‘s bears no relation to knowing how to mind your p‘s and q‘s.

But there are many worse things a 13-year-old may be doing than learning how to spell ericeticolous and kaumographer — and most 13-year-olds are doing them. Given our record in the Olympics, I’m proud that even my adopted homeland, Japan, has claimed at times it needs to take its educational cues from my ancestral one. I’ve never lived a day of my life in India, but when 13-year-old Arvind, from Bayside Hills, N.Y., spelled a Yiddish word for a small dumpling correctly, I was moved — almost — to learn the spelling of trichocercous.

MORE: Six Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Scripps National Spelling Bee

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