The phrase came from Hari Kondabolu, but Kevin Negandhi was an enthusiastic adopter. Each May, the two Indian-Americans — one a successful stand-up comic, the other a well-known ESPN anchor — would gather on the internet to celebrate the arrival of the National Spelling Bee, an event they referred to as the “Indian Super Bowl.”
“It’s that time,” Negandhi wrote two years ago. “Pit in the stomach for these Indian American kids. The pressure is real. Our Super Bowl begins.”
He was sort of joking, but largely not. Negandhi wasn’t a grade-school celebrity like Nihar Janga or Vanya Shivashankar — and his game of choice was Knowledge Bowl, not competitive spelling. Still, he always identified with the Indian-American kids who filled ESPN highlight reels in late May. He recognized the passion written on their parents’ faces, how badly the kids wanted to make their relatives proud, how central their educational achievements were to their families’ lives. Negandhi was the host of the morning edition of “SportsCenter,” but he was also one of those kids, and this was their week.
“That’s me. That’s me on stage,” he said this week. “Every Indian kid in America wants to please their parents first, and the pressure in pleasing your parents is so great, because it’s viewed as a societal thing. You never want to let your parents down. Ever. I mean, I still feel it. My parents didn’t do that to me. It’s just built-in. It’s in your DNA.”
And so maybe it was inevitable that Negandhi, 42, would eventually be tapped to host ESPN’s Bee coverage, which finally happened last spring and will happen again Thursday, live from National Harbor. He was the first Indian-American anchor on a national sports show, and here’s a sporting(ish) event dominated by Indian-Americans, a community that has produced 17 of the past 21 champions. Call it serendipity or synchronicity, issue your panegyrics, soak up the horripilation and admire the pulchritudinous: This was meant to be.
Because when you go back to Negandhi’s suburban Philadelphia childhood, it doesn’t take long for you to run into dictionaries. Negandhi’s mom took him and his older brother Vimal to the Phoenixville Public Library every afternoon to do their homework, and whenever Kevin encountered an unfamiliar word, his mother proffered a dictionary. Their father assigned the boys homework that went beyond what their teachers requested — “I can’t even describe how much harder my dad’s work was,” Kevin said — and one of their regular assignments was to re-copy entire newspaper stories by hand.
“And if we didn’t understand a word, here we go, back to the dictionary,” said Vimal, now a sports psychologist. “That was a staple. We always had a dictionary.”
There was also the pressure to succeed, a feeling that obviously crosses ethnic lines. I mentioned to Kevin how in my family, a grade of 98 came with a joking question: “Why not 100?” Negandhi immediately recalled getting a B in a junior-high chemistry class that virtually everyone else failed; “My father, without blinking, looked at me and said, ‘Why didn’t you get the A?’ ”
“It was a competitive environment, even among friends and family, because you wanted to show that you had what it takes to be successful,” Vimal said. “You didn’t want to slip in your own family. If your cousins were doing well, you also wanted to do well. And it wasn’t talked about, but it was understood.”
These are fond memories — in retrospect, at least. And Kevin credits much of his success to his parents, who came to America from Mumbai before he was born. His father Sanat was an accountant, and Negandhi never remembers seeing him take a day off. His mother Usha, who grew up so poor that she had to share a pencil with her younger sister, earned two Masters degrees after arriving here. It’s that classic American rerun — parents coming to the United States so their kids could succeed — and for the Negandhi brothers, academic success was assumed.
“And I think every single Indian-American family has a story like that, and these kids are fully aware of that history,” Kevin said. “They understand our parents made these sacrifices, and we want to make sure in the end that they’re proud of us.”
So when Kevin watched the Spelling Bee, he always looked first at the parents, to see how they were reacting to the competition. When he saw the Indian-American kids on stage, he would think back to his own childhood, when his parents showed him India Abroad — a newspaper for expats — and bragged about the awards won by this young boy and the honors given to this young girl. “Every single Indian-American of our generation has gone through that,” he said, and that might explain why so many prominent Indian-Americans he has met share his fascination with the Bee.
We’re trafficking in some stereotypes here, of course, and those aren’t ever universal. Sometimes Indian-American kids turn into socialites in high school, and decide to go into sports broadcasting, and chase their careers from Kirksville, Mo. all the way to ESPN, where Negandhi landed in 2006. Not all the top spellers are Indian-Americans, and Negandhi wants to tell the stories of all the kids gathered in Washington this week, not just the ones who look like him. Still, there’s a personal connection here. He wanted to host this event because he loves it, because he finds it so easy to relate to these families, because his stomach lurches nervously when he watches the kids compete.
“I didn’t want people to see Indian-Americans as robots; I wanted them to see that there’s something here that’s relatable, that every Indian-American kid and their families have a story,” he said. “When I see the parents, I just make sure they know they should be very proud of their kids, that to get that far is an accomplishment in and of itself, that regardless of the outcome, to be in this room, to be on that stage, they’ve already won.”
The host has, too. A cousin told him last year that news of his Spelling Bee role made it into the Hindi-language press; “Dude, you’re in a paper in India!” he said. His mom “thinks it’s amazing” that he hosts an event that so often celebrates young Indian-American kids. And the night he made his Spelling Bee debut, Negandhi heard from his friend Kondabolu, the comic. His message?
“I cannot believe this. I cannot believe an Indian-American is actually hosting the Indian-American Super Bowl.”