Speller's goal has higher meaning

Word whiz, 13, hopes success wins asylum for parents in India

May 06, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

GREEN RIVER, Utah -- Great spellers come in all types, from egotistical showoffs to loners who find sanctuary in the forest of words.

Kunal Sah, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, is an angry speller. He lives with his uncle and aunt at their family-owned Ramada Limited Motel in this tough former railroad town in eastern Utah. Kunal is making himself into a great speller by way of unhappiness and the immense pressure he feels to reunite his family, which was blown apart across two continents when his parents were sent back to India last year after being denied political asylum.

He said he cried every day after his parents left. Then as the spelling bee season started and he began winning - ultimately reaching the regional competition and becoming one of three students from Utah who will be going to Washington at the end of this month for the Scripps National Spelling Bee - he began to put his frustration into words.

Capturing the spotlight at the spelling bee, he said, could draw attention to his parents' case.

The Indian news media have taken notice. An article in March in The Indian Express, an English-language daily newspaper, tried to capture the family's mix of pride and pain under the headline: "Spelling bee whiz in U.S. motel room, parents in Bihar Village."

"What I want to do is win the nationals, and, if I do, then there is a chance that my mom and dad will have a better chance of coming back," Kunal said, sitting on his bed in a room stuffed to the ceiling with sprachgefuehl, a German word he was stumped by in a spelling bee last year. It means things that are linguistically appropriate or intuitive.

"The anger is pushing me," he said. "The anger is just telling me that, yes, this year I have to win."

Green River played a role in the making of Kunal the speller. He grew up here, three hours southeast of Salt Lake City, after his family came in 1997 from California, where he was born, a U.S. citizen.

For the only boy of Indian heritage in a town of about 900 people, that might be lonely enough. But his parents, Kanhai and Sarita Sah, were strivers, bent on upward mobility, willing to work harder than the competition, staying open later and trading up to a larger motel, the Ramada, after only five years in town.

Some people admitted that they did not like Kanhai, or Ken, as he came to be known here, although they say they admire the accomplishments of the son.

"I really believe it was just the personality people didn't like," said Amy Wilmarth, the manager of the Green River Coffee Co., in describing Kanhai Sah. "He probably has quite a bit of arrogance, along with rudeness, and just no common sense as far as dealing with the public."

An immigration lawyer working on the Sahs' behalf, Steven R. Lawrence Jr., said he believed the Sahs might be able to return. A visa for people who own businesses in the United States is one option being pursued, Lawrence said, adding that a reunion in America is not likely anytime soon.

The Sahs, who are Hindus and had lived in a predominantly Muslim area of India, had told the U.S. government in their asylum application that they feared persecution if they returned to India.

Kunal's uncle, Dharm Chandra Prasad, who came to Utah three years ago after receiving a degree in business in England, said that jealousy over the family's success, combined with the ethnic and cultural differences - much of the town is Mormon, the Sahs are Hindu - created resentment.

"When you will go up, everybody will try to pull your leg down," Prasad said, sitting at the front desk of the motel on a recent morning, fielding telephone calls and taking reservations as he spoke.

He said his brother was pressed to become a Mormon, but that was not about to happen. "He said, `Why we should change our religion?'" Prasad said. "The god is one, same god yours, you call Jesus, we call a different word."

What makes everything go behind the Ramada's walls, and inside Kunal, is a work ethic.

Sitting on the couch in the living room of the apartment he shares with his uncle and his aunt, Jyothie, Kunal pointed across the room to the pair of skateboarding sneakers he was given as a reward from his parents for hard study.

The kind of sneakers that lots of American children get just for asking, Kunal had to earn. If he could work through 5,000 vocabulary words in one day, his father promised him, he would get the shoes.

Kunal delivered after 16 hours of study, staying up until 4 a.m.

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