Sunday, May 6, 2007

Torn From Parents, a Top Speller Vents His Anger

Published: May 6, 2007

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 the 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 across two continents when his parents were sent back to India last year after being denied political asylum.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Kunal Sah’s parents had been seeking political asylum in the United States, but last year they were sent back to India.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Kunal Sah at the motel in Green River, Utah, where he lives with his aunt and uncle.

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 bee, he said, could draw attention to his parents’ case.

The Indian news media have already 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 sprachgefühl, a word he was stumped by in a spelling bee last year. It means things that are linguistically appropriate or intuitive. Everything in Kunal’s room, from his dictionaries to his spelling trophies, is linguistically appropriate. “The anger is pushing me,” he said. “The anger is just telling me that yes, this year I have to win.”

An immigration lawyer working on the Sahs’ behalf, Steven R. Lawrence Jr., said he believed the Sahs might yet be able to return, perhaps on a visa for people who own businesses in the United States. But their case is exceedingly complicated and even Mr. Lawrence acknowledges that a reunion in America is not likely anytime soon.

Mr. Sah, who was born in India, came to the United States in 1990 and shortly before his entry visa expired the next year he applied for political asylum, saying that if he was forced to return to his home province in southeastern India he would be targeted by Muslims because of his involvement in a group called Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which he described as committed to Hindu nationalism.

Mr. Sah acknowledged in his application that he had been active in organizing a campaign against Babri Mosque, in northern India, because it was “built on our sacred land” and that he “actively participated” in riots intended to demolish it.

In 1992, after Mr. Sah had immigrated to the United States, Hindu extremists destroyed the mosque.

In denying him haven, immigration officials noted that Mr. Sah “had participated in the persecution of non-Hindus and thus was ineligible for asylum.”

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

Some people admitted that they did not like Kanhai, or Ken, as he was known, although they say they admire the son’s accomplishments.

“I really believe it was just the personality people didn’t like,” Amy Wilmarth, the manager of the Green River Coffee Company, said of Mr. Sah. “He probably has quite a bit of arrogance, along with rudeness.”

On a busy summer night, there may be 2,000 travelers in Green River’s 600-odd rooms. Most are only stopping long enough to catch up on sleep, food and fuel. The town sits midway between Denver and Las Vegas, with few lodging choices for 100 miles in any direction.

And every now and then, people here say, some of those visitors do not like seeing a dark-skinned face at the Ramada. So Kunal’s family members rarely sit at the front desk, only coming out when the front bell is pushed. By the time someone has come that far, they say, and perhaps smelled the Indian cooking, they are more likely to stay.

Other motel operators are well aware that some travelers are racist or anti-immigrant. “A lot of them will come down to me because they won’t stay there,” said Cynthia Powell, manager of the Rodeway Inn.

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 — created resentment.

“When you will go up, everybody will try to pull your leg down,” Mr. Prasad said at the motel on a recent morning. He said his brother was pressed to become a Mormon. “He said, Why we should change our religion?” Mr. 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 sneakers he was given as a reward from his parents. The kind of sneakers that lots of American children get just for asking. If he could work through 5,000 words in one day, his father promised, he would get the shoes. Kunal delivered in 16 hours.

Wherever the burning desire came from, it has manifested itself in the embrace of language. There are friendly words, Kunal said, and stranded, orphan sorts of words, which are the hardest because they lack linguistic relatives that can provide clues to their spelling patterns.

Last year, Kunal made a friend at his first national spelling bee, where he was eliminated early on. The friend is Yeeva Cheng, 14, a champion speller from Cherryville, N.C. The two study over the Internet, lobbing pronunciations back and forth.

One recent night they kept at it until 4 a.m., and Kunal smiled when he told the story. No anger now, just a 13-year-old like any other.