by Samanth Subramanian
The first time Nikhil Shukla adjudicated a Guinness world record, two million people turned up. Standing on a makeshift dais just before dawn in January 2012, Shukla gazed with bleary, incredulous eyes; he was 28, and he had never seen such a mammoth crowd in his life. Tolls on the national highway from the nearest city, Rajkot, had been suspended to accommodate the traffic, and Shukla had to trudge 20 minutes from his V.I.P. parking spot, squeezing through dense thickets of bodies, to approach the stage. The throng that gathered in this patch of dusty farmland in western India to watch the event came from villages and towns across the district. They had responded to a call from a Gujarati community organization that, with a vague aim of promoting public harmony, wanted people to pair off and shake hands with one another, setting a world record for the most simultaneous handshakes.
Shukla is the sole Guinness World Records representative in India, and he has since contended with many situations like this one, in which a deep enthusiasm for record-setting threatens to swamp the precise rigor of record verification. That January morning, Shukla spotted several problems right away. Participants had each been assigned an ID card with an embedded microchip, but with such an enormous assembly, it would take more than a full day to count them all. The counted and the uncounted also had to be kept apart until they had all been reckoned and the grand shaking of hands could begin. “My role is as a judge,” Shukla told me. “I can’t do crowd management.” He told the organizers that they had a potential disaster on their hands: “You can’t tell two million people to sit quietly.” It took seven hours for Shukla to count off 48,870 people and marshal them into a holding area, where, once a signal was given, they shook hands for five minutes in mock solemnity. “People were laughing and giggling, pretending to total strangers that they were old friends meeting after years,” Shukla recalled. “It was electric.” The record hasn’t been broken since.
In recent decades, an obsession with the Guinness World Records book in India has given rise to a fevered subculture of record-setters. There are homegrown catalogs of achievement — the India Book of Records, which is distinct from the Indian Book of Records, and the Limca Book of Records, named not for a beer but for a brand of fizzy lemonade — but the Guinness World Records book holds the most allure. Nearly a tenth of all Guinness World Records submissions now come from India. In 2013, Indians applied for roughly 3,000 records, just behind the United States and Britain, and the number of Indian record-holders has grown 250 percent over the past five years. Many of these feats are, like the orgy of handshaking, records of mass participation. In India, it is easy to rustle up a crowd: the biggest blood drive (61,902 donors); the largest motorcycle pyramid (201 men and 10 motorcycles). Individual records display manic creativity and diligence: the cultivation of ear hair 7.12 inches long; the guitar performance on Mount Everest; the 103-character sentence typed out, in 47 seconds, with a nose; the limbo-skating under a row of 39 parked cars. Some quests have a tragic edge; Sailendra Nath Roy, trying to cross a river on a zip line attached to his ponytail, died of a heart attack after his hair was caught in the pulley. Others are tinged with a different sort of pathos. Har Parkash, a 72-year-old man from New Delhi, covered his body in 366 flag tattoos, chugged a bottle of ketchup in under 40 seconds, adopted his 61-year-old brother-in-law and set several other records and then, for good measure, changed his name to Guinness Rishi, his life and identity swallowed up by his obsession.
Shukla is a compact man with a well-twirled mustache and leftover brawn from his days as an amateur boxer and rugby player. A stolid, no-nonsense person, even he cannot help marveling at his compatriots’ zeal for Guinness records. He likes to tell the story of Shridhar Chillal, a man in his mid-70s who stopped clipping the nails on his left hand in 1952 and, as a consequence, holds the record for the world’s longest fingernails: a combined length of 20 feet across his five fingers. Like Shukla, Chillal lives in Pune, so Shukla pays him regular visits. “His hand is in a — I don’t know how to put it — in a bag he has created. He cleans them every day, with petroleum jelly and boric acid.” The nails are so fragile that the hand has been rendered useless. “He was telling me that for the last 35 years, he can hardly sleep for more than half an hour continuously, ‘because every time I have to turn on my side, I have to wake up, I have to lift my hand, keep it on the other side, then turn, then sleep.’ ” Shukla waggled his head in wonder. “It’s a serious commitment.”
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