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Need a Record Broken? India Will Oblige

NEW DELHI - How do you stand out in a land with a billion people?Radhakant Bajpai did it by growing his ear hair more than five inches long.

Vadivelu Karunakaren did it by skipping 10 miles in 58 minutes.

Arvind Morarbhai Pandya did it by running 940 miles backward in 26 days and seven hours.

India is a land obsessed with superlatives, especially the kind that get you into the Guinness World Records book. Here, a Guinness record is the stuff of national headlines.

"Orissa man claims a record for cracking open 72 coconuts by elbow!" the Hindustan Times, a leading newspaper, trumpeted last month. "Uttar Pradesh boy can write on mustard seeds!" said a headline in July. The paper has run over 50 stories this year about bids for Guinness records, and it is by no means ahead of its competition.

And this just in from the Times of India, another highly respected daily: "Man looks to set world record pulling vehicles with mustache."

Why the fascination? India, after all, is awash in genuine superlatives — world's largest democracy, world's largest youth population. Why bother with fastest to drink a bottle of ketchup?

Guinness Rishi — yes, his name is Guinness; more on that later — submitted the ketchup record after downing a bottle in 39 seconds. The Guinness company has yet to accept his bid.

Rishi said he breaks records — his business card lists 19 feats — to distinguish himself in one of the world's biggest crowds.

"People consider me an extraordinary person, not an ordinary person," he said.

India, holding 219 Guinness World Records, is only 10th on the list. The U.S. has the most, followed by Britain, Australia and Germany. But for sheer obsessive enthusiasm, and ingenuity in dreaming up new superlatives, India seems unbeatable.

The explanations are various.

In the new India, more people than ever are earning prestigious degrees and staggering salaries. But for millions who don't have access to such routes for success, aiming for world records, no matter how ridiculous, provides a much-needed outlet in a society as rigid and hierarchical as India's, say Rishi and other world-beaters.

After all, India's widespread poverty and its caste system, though not the all-determining forces they once were, still make social boundaries hard to crack. Harder, perhaps, than breaking a world record.

"Persons who have no money wish to do something in their lives, so the poor people try to break records by their strength or their will," said Rishi, a 66-year-old partner in an auto parts factory.

His crowded bookshelves are filled exclusively with record books from years past. He also hires himself out as a consultant to would-be record breakers.

No one captures Guinness mania better. Rishi changed his first name from Har Parkash to Guinness after earning a record for being part of a team that kept a motor scooter in motion for 1,001 hours. He says he's broken more than a dozen records, but the Guinness company has not yet accepted any others.

To claim the record for oldest adoptee, he adopted his 61-year-old brother-in-law. (He's going to beat that one again now that he's "working with a 90-year-old.") He built the world's tallest sugar cube tower at 64 inches.

Rishi is so passionate about Guinness that he wrote in his will — the longest will in the world, of course — that he wants his record books used as the kindling at his cremation. (His wife, Bimla, claims to have the record for shortest will in the world: "All to son.")

Rishi says his two sons have successful careers abroad, and they don't think much of the Guinness obsession. But their accomplishments make Rishi more determined to prove that he counts, too.

"My children feel that they are more important in the field of business and moneymaking so I have to show the family and the community that I am a professional person," he said.

Some see broader explanations for India's peculiar relationship with Guinness.

Santosh Desai, a columnist with the Times of India, another newspaper that covers Guinness bids like political campaigns, says it's an example of India's hunger for Western approval, a defining trait in a country racing to achieve superpower status.

"We are desperate to be acknowledged by the world as being worthy," Desai said. "We hunt for any signs that the external world recognizes us, and then we celebrate them."

Even if it's, well, Bajpai's world-beating ear hair.

The Indian Express, a well-respected newspaper, called Bajpai "a proud man who has brought hairy recognition ... not only to his locality and city but to the whole nation."

But this theory — that it's all about self-esteem _doesn't explain why neighboring Pakistan doesn't share India's Guinness passion. The two were one country during British colonial times, and have a lot in common, culturally, ethnically and linguistically.

In their zeal for posterity, some in India have taken the Guinness obsession to dangerous extremes.

In June, a doctor couple in southern India boasted that their 15-year-old son had tried to become the world's youngest surgeon by delivering a baby by Caesarean section — a procedure they proudly filmed.

All three are now awaiting trial on charges of endangering human life.

Last year, a 4-year-old boy attempted to run 43 miles to earn a spot in a local record book. Doctors stopped the child after 40 miles and found him to be undernourished and anemic.

His coach has been arrested and charged with torturing the child.

Amarilis Espinoza, a Guinness World Records spokeswoman, said the company doesn't accept entries that encourage dangerous behavior. People across the world inquire about feats Guinness does not condone, but India's can-do attitude makes it stand out, she said. Rather than just ask about unsafe records, in India "they just go ahead and do it," she said.

For world-beaters who fail to reach the peaks of Guinness, there is the local Limca Record Book, published by Coca-Cola, a junior-varsity league for India's unlikely feats. ("Fastest Solving of Rubik's Cube Blindfolded.")

Another rung down is the Web site where people pay $50 to have their record posted. ("37 Men on a Bike.")

Rishi is considering publishing his own book of records, one that will be more inclusive than the Guinness book.

But some in India say that as living standards soar, Guinness mania will peter out.

"What has replaced it are more legitimate and more conventional areas of competing," said Desai. "I think India will outgrow its desire to grow its nails faster than the rest of the world."


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