The Broader Picture: A nation of record-breakers

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The Independent Culture
THE Guinness Book of Records documents the world's ultimates: its biggests and smallests, its most opulent, its stingiest, its strangest. The one record it hasn't awarded is to the people who strive hardest to win world records. That would have to go to the citizens of India: a land of extremes, filled with people who go to any extreme to get their names into the Guinness book. An ambitious Indian from a small town or village may type for days, blow smoke rings or thread needles one after another, in the hope that the next edition will honour him, his stunt and his country.

It's a national obsession: nearly one-fifth of Guinness's mail comes from India. 'Every time I do an update for the press,' says Cathy Brook, the company's public relations manager, 'there's an Indian record on the list.' India has, among others, the world's smallest adult (right, at the Taj Mahal), longest fingernails (opposite, bottom) and longest hair (top). Guinness publishes editions in four Indian languages, and India has its own local tome as well, publishing records not recognised by Guinness.

The goal of most record-breakers is prestige, which doesn't come easily in a poor, conservative country with little social mobility. 'It's a desire to stand out in a society where much conformity is demanded,' says Sudhir Kakar, one of India's top psychoanalysts. 'If you wish to stand out, you have to go to great lengths.'

The more extreme efforts may have a religious aspect: for Hindus, anything done with great dedication - even if it's growing fingernails or a moustache for decades - brings a spiritual benefit. Some of the record-holders, on the other hand, are professional stuntmen who earn a living walking backwards or festooning themselves with scorpions and snakes. In such demanding trades, a Guinness certificate is like a PhD.

Record-breaking is self-perpetuating, as the case of Surendra Apharya demonstrates. In 1989, Apharya decided to challenge a record held by a man in Japan. He got out his magnifying glass and wrote 241 characterson a single grain of rice. After his record was published, Guinness was inundated with painted rice grains from India. 'It's a standing joke around the office,' says Nicholas Heath-Brown, who deals with Guinness's human achievement records, 'that I have enough rice to make a curry.' Apharya has successfully defended his record three times - he now squeezes 1,749 characters on to each grain - and proceeded to writing on human hair.

The prestige gained by record-holders is very real. Milind Deshmukh, a labourer in a car factory, won a record in 1990 for walking with a milk bottle balanced on his head. When he practises, passers-by stop and point, saying: 'That's Milind Deshmukh]'. Eleven-year-old Amitesh Purohit was dubbed a 'diamond' of his home city of Indore by the country's vice-president after he clinched the record for doing the limbo on roller-skates.

Aspirants include Rangaramanujam Kannian, who is trying to win a record for the number of bees on the face - so far he has made a beard of 40,000 bees (opposite, centre) but will have to get up to 100,000. N Paratharsarthy of the southern Indian city of Coimbatore has dedicated his life to getting into the Guinness book. He will do anything, including staring at a solar eclipse without protection for his eyes. 'I am not beautiful,' he explains, 'not rich, not fully educated. But I wanted to become something. Then people would be interested in me.'-

(Photographs omitted)