Under Their Spell

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    Having built up a 50,000 plus word bank of their own, twins Harpith and Harpita have an unusual knack for words. But they are also delightful company with lots of wisdom for their age.
    You know you are at a loss for words when an eight-year old tells you his favourite word is the tricky 29-letter floccinaucinihilipilification. One of the longest words in the English language, it means the action or habit of estimating something as worthless, you are also told. For eight-year old Harpith and his twin sister Harpita, their love for words knows no bounds. Every day they pick new words randomly and learn to spell them, a habit that has resulted in a word banks of over 50,000 words in the past one year.
    These days the twins are certainly enjoying more than their five minutes of fame. At school and elsewhere, people walk up to them and say, “We saw you on TV last night” at which they give a modest “Oh cool” reply and walk on before they get accosted by someone else. Channel Ten’s promos on The Great Australian Spelling Bee, premiering 7.30 Monday, August 3 shows glimpses of these two siblings fighting it out to compete among a bunch of other kids from all over the country.
    The promo is actually very cool, says Harpita, the more talkative one of the two.
    So how did they develop an interest in spelling and words?
    Harpita says that as a child, her parents would read out stories before they went to bed. ‘That’s how we actually listened to words. Then later when we came across those words we said hang on, let’s find out what the word means.”
    In the same vein, Harpith says, “We got interested in books firstly. Since we find so many interesting words in them, we look them up and then when we find the definitions and the origins we say wow that is a really cool definition. Then we find out more about the word and that’s how we keep our interest going. We started to spell when we were three years old but built the bank just last year.”
    “We don’t always practice but we do it as a fun thing. We also make it a bit competitive so we have a scoreboard and whoever wins gets the points. We pick a couple of words and ask each other if we know these words, if it is too easy we grab another set of words. We look at the dictionary for meaning and for some tricky words. Then we find out how that word is pronounced; is that word really special? Is that word plain? How many letters, etc.,” adds Harpita, who also has a keen interest in writing.
    Because of their sweaty spirit of competition with each other, their teachers at school decided to separate them and put them in different classes. “They felt it would allow also them to grow individually,” says their father Pandian, a software engineer from Tamil Nadu who has been living in Australia for the past eight years.
    “If we are in the same class we might have a competition in the same subject so we got separated so we can mind our own business. They view us as rivals,” says Haprith giving us the comic fodder to the conversation. “I often get told that ‘your sister is your biggest competitor’,” he laughs. Harpita says, “It’s weird.” Both are grade 3 students.
    Harpita, who is elder to Harpith by a minute, enjoys the normal writing activity in school. “We don’t have a competition but they give us a topic to write on. So if the topic is on animals I don’t pick just cats and dogs but pick interesting animals and write about the bison, for instance. I saw the movie Journey to Centre of the Earth and I started writing the story on the movie and showed it to my mom.”
    At school their favourite subject is mental math but they don’t find the other subjects too easy. “We find them at the right standard for us. We like math, we were in competition for mental arithmetic and we gold medals there,” says a proud Harpita.
    Of course the spelling test in school is always a cakewalk for these delightful twins who display a level of maturity as they switch off from their peer group. “It was very funny the other day because we did our spelling test and when I went up to the teacher, she said the words were too easy for me and that I was in the highest level. So she said ‘I have no idea what to do with you now’. She can’t move us; we are on the grade 6 level in spelling,” says Harpita.
    Last September, the twins took part in the Victorian Spellmasters competition and earned a place in the finals which had about 40 finalists comprising grade 1 to grade 5 participants in the junior section. This year too both were fighting for the first spot and ended with Harpith bagging the first place and Harpita the second in the junior division of Spellmasters. Now both are through to the finals to be held in November.
    But the highlight of their life these days has been their recent participation in the filming of the show The Great Australian Spelling Bee. Bound by contractual obligations, they cannot reveal much as to how they fared but they have come home with a lot of wonderful memories and enjoying their celebrity status.
    “I think now everyone knows because our principal told the whole school. Every day when I go to school, there are at least 10 people who come up to me and say I saw you on TV. And I am like ‘Yeah, it’s cool’. Today it was funny, one person came up to me and said I saw you on TV, half a millimetre of a step away another person came and said the same, and another half a millimetre later somebody else came to me and said the same thing,” says Harpita.
    How was it in front of the cameras? “That experience was just relaxing,” says Harpith. “We were just standing there and people were just moving round us. The camera was shooting us and we had to just spell the words.”

    “We were confident, we always have the confidence,” adds Harpita. “We don’t say ‘I am not going to get through or fail’. Even if we don’t get through we know we can get in some other competition. At least you still have the confidence of participation.”
    Harpita says she didn’t overcome any fear “because I usually talk in front of the school assembly since I am a vice school counsellor for Unicef. I concentrate on what I have to speak about, I don’t concentrate on how my audience is going to look like.”
    These small kids also harbour tall dreams. Haprita says she wants to become a cardio surgeon when she grows up and help people who have heart diseases. “The idea came when I first learnt about the human body. I wanted to know more about myself but then I realised I also have a human body, then I realised the heart is an important part so I decided to go with the heart because if you don’t have a healthy heart, unfortunately you won’t live. I want to help others too. My brother is a junior school counsellor and I am vice school counsellor for Unicef so we have the fundraising experience. When I grow up I am planning to donate for kids and help kids who need help.”
    Harpith says he has a similar interest but because his sister has already chosen the heart, he would like to study the brain and become a neuro surgeon. “Basically when I was three years old I came home and I wanted to learn something new about the human anatomy. I was like I need to know how my bones work, I learnt about that and then I got this idea that I wanted to be a surgeon. I was thinking heart but she already took the heart. So after a long thought I chose the brain.”
    Both share a common interest in reading and mental maths but it their love for spelling and words that bind them together. Of course some things are different, insists Harpith who loves karate and sports. Harpita says she prefers artwork such as drawing and has a passion for music and writing. “I have written 3 to 4 songs now. I wrote a song called ‘My Family’. I wrote that because I know my family is very important to me. I think my brother is important but he is one part of the family so I wrote about my whole family and it became a special song. I wrote about the emotional features of my family.” Sample this: ‘Darkness is everywhere without you…when I am feeling down, down, down I have always got a family’…”
    So as twins do they think alike? “Yes,” says Harpita, adding, “For instance when he was on the show, I was using telepathic powers when he was saying words which he didn’t know but I knew. I was sending the vibes in my brain to him so he gets the signs and gets it correct.”
    In their spare time, the duo love filling up their iPads with new words, listening to the pronunciation etc. Asked what they plan to do to their mammoth collection one day, “Well we could just write our own dictionary and make it our own thesaurus reading and just add more words,” quips Harpita.
    The trickiest word they have encountered is also the longest one – the 29 letter floccinaucinihilipilification, which is also Harpith’s favourite. For Harpita it is cafune, of
    Brazilian Portuguese origin. “It’s when your mother runs down her fingers through your head, it feels so safe,” she explains.
    The twins parents Priya and Pandian say they have never pushed them to learn anything but where they are now has been driven by their own interest.
    Both were born premature at 34 weeks but their rise has been phenomenal. Charming company and a delight they spread joy everywhere they go.
    Do people find you cute? “Yes”, they answer unanimously. It is not hard to fall under their spell.
    By Indira Laisram