The Quest For First

Indian Americans are a driven lot. Is it their genes, their environment or ambitious parents?


What is it with Indians and contests? 

Be it a game show, a beauty pageant, a science or math Olympiad or a spelling bee – Indian Americans turn out to compete in record numbers, their nose to the grindstone, aspiring to be first. Is it something to do with the Indian persona, something that immigrants and their children carry within them as they scatter across the diaspora?

Is there something in the Indian psyche that pushes them to compete – be it growing the longest mustache or nails that spill to the floor to get into the Guinness Book of Records, becoming the winner on Kaun Banega Krorepati, or the beauty who gets to represent India at the Miss Universe pageant?

Does this passion come from the knowledge that one is but a mere speck in a crowded nation of over a billion people and therefore wanting to stand out? After all, if you make it into the newspapers, you know – and the world knows – that you exist!

And is it that compulsiveness that is carrying over in Indian immigrants?

“India is going through a major phase in terms of forming an identity as a nation and we are seeing people from all parts of the country coming together and sharing forums and things like beauty pageants, Bollywood and the fashion industry or the cultural life,” says Madhulika Khandelwal, director of the Asian American Center at Queens College, who recently returned from India. “There is a kind of coming together to forge an Indian identity, while earlier there was more of a regional identity or a city identity.”

She finds that while spelling bees, brain bees, math and science contests are played out by Indian Americans in the mainstream, Indian beauty pageants in America remain an ethnic endeavor. But both are fuelled by ethnic pride in Indian roots. And increasingly this ethnic pride is connected to the larger changes that India is undergoing as a nation. She adds, “You could say the competitive spirit was always there, but India’s economic success and larger role in the world has had an impact on the intensity of the competition. It can be felt everywhere.”

Telecommunications has intensified the competition. Satellite television and the Internet have revolutionized communications, connecting people in small towns and villages to not only the cities, but to the larger world. Take something as trivial as the Saragamapa, a music contest show on Indian television. Not only do millions watch it in India, but so do Khandelwal and scores of Indian Americans from Texas to New Jersey.

“What was striking to me is that these game shows are reaching out to millions and millions of people who ten years ago would have had no chance of not only auditioning for this, but even think about a national contest. It’s become a national game,” she says. “All the regions are pitching into this national contest – and it’s like who will be the voice of India?”

“I think internationalism was always a part of modern independent India, call it part of globalization, but there is a heightened awareness by larger number of people involved here now – millions of people – and they are hooked to the international networks,” says Khandelwal. “They want to be in the Guinness Book of Records, but if not, then maybe they can be in the national equivalent, the Limca Book of Records. So there is an international community in which they want to be represented.”

The frenzy is certainly building up in India and to some extent in the diaspora. The voting for shows such as Indian Idol, Fame Gurukul and Saragamapa is done by the audience, and hundreds of thousands of calls and text messages pour in for favorite contestants, and the winner becomes a national celebrity.

At the same time, cable channels have brought these shows into the living rooms of Indian Americans from California to Atlanta to New York. For these young people, watching people who look like themselves win big is invigorating. In fact, many of them have aspirations of competing in Indian Idol! Sony TV, which produces the show, has fielded calls from young Indian American lawyers and IT professionals wanting to appear as contestants on Indian Idol.
The global influences work in reverse as well: Kaun Banega Krorepati is derived from the American hit Who Wants to be a Millionaire, while Indian Idol based on the hit series American Idol, took India by storm in 2004. Deal Ya No Deal is a reality show, based on the American show Deal or No Deal and Fame Gurukul, a daily reality drama that is a passion in India, is an adaptation of the very successful Spanish reality show Operacion Trunfo.

Rajan Singh, vice president for international business, SonyEntertainment Television Asia, says: “Indian tastes are not that different from the rest of the world’s, where reality television has caught on in a big way. The essential reason for the success of these shows is entertainment.” Driven contestants are by no means be an Indian phenomenon, but are just more noticeable simply because there are more of them.

As global influences continue to criss-cross, expect to see more and more Indians and Indian Americans getting into contests that are usually not their forte, such as physically challenging activities. In the new show Fear Factor: Jo Daar Gaya So Mar Gaya, also adapted from an American show, contestants lie in a box filled with snakes, do a tightrope walk between skyscrapers, be submerged underwater and other dare-devil tasks – not something most Indian parents would approve of. That’s globalization for you.

In a nation of over a billion people, only a handful can get on national TV, but millions participate vicariously, rooting for their favorites and many are connected from America to India. Says Milly Parekh, a media planner in New Jersey, an avid fan: “My mom in Mumbai prays for a particular participant because she wants him to win. They get emotionally tied up with the contestants and winning becomes a very personal thing.”

Indian Americans are now beginning to show up on mainstream game shows. Two Indian Americans who made it to Donald Trump’s The Apprentice – Raj Bhakta and Toral Mehta – besides gaining name-brand status in mainstream America, became instant celebrities in the ethnic media and were analyzed endlessly in Indian American list servs and forums.

Toral Mehta is representative of these highly competitive young Indian Americans. The fiery Apprentice contestant is a banker and promotes herself as author, speaker and leader on her website, which touts Trump proclamation, “Toral is among the most talented and enterprising women I have ever met.” She calls herself “Confident, Focused, Driven” and cites self-confidence as her strength and over-confidence as her weakness. Asked when she would rate herself as a success, she said, “I already do.” In her family she lists, “Very pushy mom, very patient dad,” something many Indian Americans can relate to.

While it is still rare to discover Indians on mainstream game shows, it’s a positive flood, a downpour, when it comes to national academic contests, where Indian Americans compete frequently and win big. Although Indians constitute less than 1 of the U.S. population, you’re sure to find Indian American names crop up on just about every winners list, be it the Siemens Westinghouse Competition, the Intel Science Talent Search or the International Brain Bee. These academic contests may be a truly American concoction, but it is Indian Americans who have embraced them with the greatest gusto, something you don’t see replicated in India.

In 1999 Nupur Lala of Tampa, Fl, became the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, followed by George Abraham Thampy of St. Louis, Mo. Two years later Pratyush Buddiga of Denver, Co., won, followed by Sai R. Gunturi of Dallas, Texas, in 2003, and in 2005 by Anurag Kashyap of San Diego, who won with the tongue-twister, “appoggiatura.”

Incredibly, the champions of the nationwide Scripps Spelling Bee in five out of the last seven years, have been Indian Americans, clambering over a mountain of obscure words. Any way you spell it, it has to be a challenge cramming every word in the dictionary over hundreds, even thousands of hours, and then, competing with poise and courage against thousands of children across America.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee, which originated in 1925, is the oldest educational contest in America and is open to 10 million students across the country, as well as English speaking students around the world, whittled down to 275 contestants, the best of the best, who gather to compete in Washington D.C. every year.

“We don’t collect ethnicity data, so the numbers I’m giving you are not firm. Offhand, I would estimate that 8 to 10 percent of our contestants are probably of South Asian descent,” says Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. That would put their numbers at 10 to 15 times their national representation in the U.S. population.
“Achievement in our program is important for families of South Asian descent. That is probably the most logical explanation for this phenomenon. I think it’s a priority for many South Asian families,” says Kimble.

What drives these Indian American children to join these contests, dedicate their energies to toil over the winning bid, sacrificing the time they could be devoting to favorite pleasures? Suvir Kaul, director of South Asia Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says: “I have no theory other than to observe that South Asian kids, particularly those born into families of the professional and middle-class diaspora, have a great many scholarly advantages. Further, such contests are seen to be part of the process of education, and since education is understood to be the only way to make certain that these kids grow into the suburban middle class, there is a disproportionate level of South Asian participation.”

Asked if the root cause is over-ambitious parents or equally driven students, he says, “It would have to be a combination to work as well as it does, wouldn’t it? If Spellbound (a fascinating documentary on the National Spelling Bee) offers any evidence though, without a driven parent, with a more or less manic glint in his or her eye, few children – South Asian or otherwise – would make it to the national competition!”

Yet he does point out a deeper cause: the large bulk of professional Indians who have migrated to the U.S. were all trained in a school and college system that is highly competitive and which features examinations that reward rote learning.

“This means that such parents are skilled in precisely the kind of memorization and repetitive learning that spelling bees and the like encourage, and they are able to communicate such mnemonic techniques to their children,” he says. He adds that children who do well in science competitions often have scientist parents, “who encourage a culture of experimentation and discovery, or to highly educated parents who see great benefit in the advanced study of science.”

Balu Natarajan of Chicago, Ill., was the first Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee Championship in 1985, followed by Ragshree Ramachandran of Sacramento, California in 1988 and these early victories seem to have unleashed the spelling bee fervor in the community.

Indeed, the very next year a group of first generation Indian immigrants launched the North South Foundation (NSF) in Chicago, Ill. Its president Ratnam Chitturi says the original mission of the non-profit organization was to support poor children in India to get a college education. While NSF still raises funds for India, in 1993 it turned its focus toward Indian American children.

“Here, unlike in India, money is not the same priority. It’s not a major issue like it’s in India,” says Chitturi. “So we thought we’d encourage academic excellence through contests.” Since many families speak regional languages like Hindi or Tamil at home, the parents often didn’t have English vocabularies comparable with American parents. So the plan was to help Indian children excel in English, and in 1993 NSF came up with the idea of promoting Indian participation in the spelling bee. Later on vocabulary, math and geography bees and essay writing and public speaking were added. The organization is volunteer-run and has 65 chapters all over the United States and Canada.
So are the chips already stacked in favor of these kids since their parents are so well educated? “That in itself doesn’t do it, but the parents know the value of education and so spend time with their children, and they spend time looking for avenues to improve their performance,” says Chitturi.
Most of these children have a great work ethic. Take Anurag Kashyap, who is just 14 and is the 2005 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion. An avid reader, scholar and writer, he has been participating since the 6th grade.

Five Indian American champions in seven years. Does it have something to do with genetics? Says Kashyap: “Well, if you want the answer to that question, you have to talk to a geneticist. Strictly speaking everyone that succeeds in the spelling bee, no matter what race or heritage one is from, we all just work really hard and have a great desire to succeed.”

Ashley Thakur became the youngest NSF champion in the spelling bee and also won the Brain Bee Championship in 2004.

Prem Trivedi, who broke the record at Scripps by becoming a second place winner two years in a row in 1997 and 1998 went on to win a National Merit Scholarship and is graduating this May from Columbia University, majoring in Middle East and South Asian languages and culture, with a concentration in political science.

His mother, Prabha Trivedi, assistant dean at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says: “I can only hazard a guess, but I think the encouragement from home to work hard and try different competitions and most of all, not just with the intent of winning something per se, but to keep doing the best they can in academic areas. I think that’s the way the cultural background is for us, so that might certainly be a factor.”

She feels that many immigrants who came in the late 60s and 70s had to get acclimatized and needed strong credentials to succeed in America. While their children may be pursuing many different careers, they have nonetheless picked up the work ethic of their parents.

There is a fire in the belly to succeed in a rapidly changing, increasingly globalized and competitive world, which rewards the smart and the hard working. Chitturi has seen the changes both in India and within the Indian American community.

Chitturi, who holds a PhD and has worked as an engineer with major companies like General Motors and Chase Manhattan, says he grew up in a village and was expected to tend cattle like his father. “If anyone had asked me what I would like to do, I would have said ‘I want to take care of my buffalos!'”

He says telecommunications has altered the aspirations of people across India. Earlier, education had been the prerogative of urban youth, but now he finds things are changing even in the villages, because of television, transportation, and communication. Village children are developing an awareness that did not exist 50 years ago. He says, “There’s been a sea change. India’s most precious resource is the people and you develop those resources and do well. Better schools hopefully lead to better jobs, better income and a better life. There is a co-relation.”

Young Indian Americans who go to India for holidays return fired up to excel, says Chitturi: “They see their cousins in India, how hard they work, their rigorous schooling and coaching in the morning and evenings. Their school bags are so heavy you wonder how they carry them. The kids see the competitiveness and they react.”

While the drive and inheritance may be inborn from India, Chitturi feels there are certain assets that are purely American: “In India we are great in certain things and in certain things we are not so great. One of them is teamwork. Indians are not well known for teamwork. You know, everyone’s a chief, no Indians, right! The contests are a good experiment and show that teamwork matters and that Indians can do it, which gives them self-confidence.”

Indeed, at this year’s Siemens Westinghouse competition, besides two individual winners – Kiran Pendri of Connecticut who won the $50,000 scholarship and Desh Mohan of Denton, Texas, who won the $30,000 scholarship – two Indian Americans won as part of teams. Abhinav Khanna of Plainview, N.Y., along with his partner Benjamin Pollack won the $50,000 scholarship and Amardeep Grewal of Beverly Hills, Mi., won the $20,000 scholarship with his partner Ran Li.

Hirsh Sandesara was an average 7-year-old brought in by his parents every year to NSF for the training. He broke the record as the youngest ACT (the equivalent of SAT in the Midwest) perfect scorer in the state of Illinois. He got top honors at Scripps and went on to get a full scholarship to Duke University and the prestigious $50,000 Truman Scholarship last year.

Kiran Pendri of Connecticut won second place individual award in the 2005-2006 Siemens-Westinghouse science competition for math, science and technology, a $50,000 scholarship for undergraduate education. He was recently named as one of the 40 finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS).

Pendri whose parents, Annapurna and Yadagiri Pendri, are from Hyderabad, is headed for Harvard. He is one of the 107 students nationwide to score a perfect 2400 out of an estimated 350,000 college-bound students who took the new SAT in March 2005. He won the Level 4 National Math Bee contest in 2004 and is the 2006 National Merit Scholarship finalist.

“Although we had the right environment at home. We are both scientists and we always sent him to good schools, but he’s self motivated and a hard worker,” says his mother. “I don’t think any parent can bring it into the child. They have to do it themselves. We can only give them encouragement.”

She adds, “Think of the ratio of Indians who migrated. It’s the cream of our country that migrated here for the opportunities and these are the progeny of that first generation. Naturally, genetically you are seeing the kids of achievers. But our kids don’t see that. They don’t think they are not Americans – this is their country. They are American children and very proud of that.”

Nor are they just fixated on studies. Preparing for college admission ensures that they are all-rounders, unlike in India where studies were often the be-all and end-all of life. Says Pendri, “You know, our children live in two different worlds. They want to fit in both the worlds. They want to please their parents. They want to fit in with their friends. They are not just good at studies, they are good at almost everything. Many of the Indian kids, they are going to be somebody in this country in the next 10, 15 years.”

Balu Natarajan, the first Indian American to become the Scripps National Spelling Bee champion in 1985 – 20 years ago – is now a successful orthopedic surgeon in Chicago, with his own sports medicine practice and is actively involved with the community.

“I’m not sure there’s a downside to an overall push for education, but I would like to see in addition to that perhaps a stress on other activities,” he says. “I would like to see more of us getting involved in team sports, because there’s certainly a lot to be gained, not necessarily from excelling in those sports, but even from just participating in them.

“There’s a lot of learning that comes from the interaction, and a lot of confidence that comes with participation in those activities. So you get the individual benefits of these sorts of contests. But additionally it would be nice to see us branching out into some of the other avenues of competition as well. So far we haven’t made a big splash doing so. I think it’s the next step that we need to take as a community.”

Indeed, unlike the Latino or African American communities, for example, sports simply doesn’t figure high in the Indian competitive spirit. Even in India, the sports performance is abysmal and the country of a billion people has not won a single gold medal in the Olympics in decades.

Says Khandelwal, “It starts from the bottom. Talent is not picked up or recognized. Who wants their kids to be a sports person? Sports are not that prestigious for the parents. It’s not something to aspire for.”

Sports are given short shrift in the agenda of both parents and schools, and perhaps Indian immigrants bring this ambivalence about sports to their own lifestyle in America. Their children, however, are Americans and going to American schools and their attitude toward sports is changing.

The Kosaraju family of Dallas, Texas, proves that Indians can succeed in the sports arena too provided that there is passion and commitment. Sri Kosaraju, 28, a vice president in JP Morgan’s equity and derivative markets group, was nationally ranked for six consecutive years in the U.S. Tennis Association Junior Tennis rankings. His brother, Sudhakar Kosaraju, 33, president of SNK Enterprises in Stamford, Conn., was nationally ranked for five years in the U.S. Tennis Association Junior Tennis rankings and was also ranked at the top in the Southwestern Tennis Association for two years

“My brother and I didn’t necessarily have a competitive advantage due to our height, strength, or heredity,” Sudhakar says. “Our strengths were our practice habits, our persistence, and the constant support that we received from our parents. If you look at successful students, athletes, spelling bee contestants, or math and science competition contestants, you’ll most likely find that each has a strong support system. Our parents provided us with all of the emotional, financial and coaching support that they could.”
He recalls the parental dedication in seeing that they had all the advantages on the court: ” The weekends that we weren’t practicing, my father and mother would take turns either driving us or flying with us to various tennis tournaments around the country. Currently more and more South Asians are making it to the collegiate varsity level and professional tennis level as well.”

For now, it is academic contests that are the craze among Indians. That and beauty pageants, although these beauty contests are limited to within the community.

Dharmatma Saran, who started the Miss India beauty pageants in 1980 with just six contestants and an audience of 30 people in a basement in Manhattan, has seen it explode amongst the Indian American and Indian Canadian communities. Now the Miss India Worldwide contest is held in 22 states and has representation from several countries of the Indian diaspora.

The beauty pageants have gained respectability within the community and there is also a marked change in the attitude of the contestants as well: “The passion for these pageants has been in India for a long time, but in the U.S., it’s a newer development,” says Saran. “I used to get contestants earlier who were not interested in Bollywood or modeling, but now they all want to go to India. Probably it’s an impact of satellite TV. The world has become smaller, especially the Indian world. They want to be part of the name and fame and glamour that they see there.”

Of course India and Indian America are forever bonded and what happens in India affects the Indian American community, even if in a peripheral way. Young Indian Americans felt the thrill when in a single year an unknown beauty Aishwariya Rai bagged the Miss World title and an equally unknown Sushmita Sen became Miss Universe. Since then there has been a steady stream of Indian international crown winners – Diana Hayden, Yukta Mookhey, Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra and Diya Mirza – who have all gone on to achieve celebrity status in the modeling and Bollywood world.

Most Indian American beauty contestants have degrees from prestigious American colleges, But they are increasingly turning to India for their career choices. Ruby Bhatia and Kamal Sidhu have become big on Indian TV while Kim Jagtiani and Aarti Chabria have joined the movies

Apra Bhandari, a graduate from Cornell University, quit a job with NBC to try her luck in Bollywood and has been there for the last three years, undergoing training. Says Saran: “I would never have imagined that happening 10-15 years ago.”

While Saran doesn’t organize male pageants, he fields many calls and emails from ambitious Indian American lawyers and IT professionals wanting to get into modeling. There have been sporadic Mr. India pageants around the United States, but these have not quite caught on nationwide like women’s beauty pageants.

While Indian American women throng to ethnic beauty pageants, only a handful have tested the waters in mainstream pageants, although 17-year-old Ankita Mehta of Houston was crowned Miss Teen 2005 in the national pageant. One reason may be that ethnic pageants are much more acceptable to Indian parents, since they emphasize brains and talents over body measurements: weight and height are not taken into consideration and there is no revealing swimsuit or bikini contest. Also, mainstream beauty pageants have height requirements that many Indian Americans may not be able to meet.

Beauty pageants in India and Indian America also differ. India is playing to the international gallery and thus is stringent about height and weight requirements as well as global standards, with contestants undertaking intensive grooming and beauty routines to compete against international contestants.

“It’s very different to watch an Indian beauty pageant in America where the whole emphasis is on Indianness and creating a space for ethnic Indian identity,” says Khandelwal. “Here it’s about carving out your ethnic identity and being proud of it. In India, it’s about national identity in the international space.”

The academic bees and science contests, she points out, are totally different, because they are done in the American context and gauge how good you are in the mainstream world, but they are also about ethnic pride. The emphasis on professional areas and intellectual pursuits is a strong component of the Indian American scene. The Indian American success has rubbed off on overseas Indians even back in India.

“I almost don’t think of NRIs (non resident Indians) as being all over the world. It almost feels like another state of India,” says Khandelwal. “People think of Indians all over as one community. The unique feature of this overseas population is that they want to have one foot in India, to be hooked to the Indian national identity, but have another foot in the country they are living in.”

And so the ethnic, the national and international pride feed off each other and spur Indians, both in India or America or any part of the diaspora, to conquer new territories – be it a beauty crown, a game show title or a spelling bee trophy. In a changing world where the motherland is an emerging economic giant, each victory becomes a badge of honor.

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