As I take my seat across a very gung ho Mohsin Haq at a café, he conjures newspaper cuttings, certificates and hotel bills from his backpack faster than I can say, ‘Hello’. “I’ve got all the evidence, you know,” says the 29 year-old relationship manager, who lives in Marol and works for a US-based finance company. “And here,” he says, “Here’s the final evidence.”
He shows me his newly-acquired Guinness World Records certificate, neatly placed in a plastic file, clearly saving the best for last. On October 2, 2011, Haq took off on his Royal Enfield bike (purchased specially for the trip) from the Gateway of India, rode 18,301 km across India’s 28 states and seven union territories in 56 days, and returned to the same spot on November 26, 2011. The feat earned him a Guinness World Record of covering the record distance in a single country, since Haq broke the record of two Canadians who rode 16,240 km across China in 64 days in 2010.
Haq is one of the 157 Guinness World Record holders in 2011, a sharp rise from the 41 record holders just five years ago, in 2006. Applications from India have grown more than 400 per cent in the past five years — last year, we made the third largest number of record applications to the body — right behind the US and UK. Little wonder that Guinness World Records announces the launch of its Indian operations today. The country will now have a local official, Nikhil Shukla, to oversee applications and operations, an Indian website, and an Indian office by 2013.
What just happened? A lot, it seems, if you look at the average Indian-trying-to-be-a-Guinness-record-holder, and numbers have the least to do with it.
In 1995, cultural critic and historian Vinay Lal wrote the essay Indians and the Guinness Book of Records — The Political and Cultural Contours of a National Obsession. The essay is incisive, sinking its teeth into our fetish for records to reveal what Lal then saw as a manifestation of “the Indian anxiety first generated during the colonial period, and subsequently aggravated by the process of nation-building and over masculinity, that accounts to a great degree for the quest among Indians to have their names etched in the Guinness Book.”
But things have since changed for the Indian record holder, says Lal, who is currently teaching history at the University of California, Los Angeles. The aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi ‘era’, he explains, saw a large number of Guinness records being created. “We Indians have always had a fetish for numbers. Who else but Indians would have 330 million gods and goddesses, for instance? Post colonisation, we wanted to make our presence felt in the world, and felt nostalgic about our ‘glorious past’. Thirdly, in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era many records, I feel, were driven by this urge to enter the stage of world history, where we thought we had been reduced to non-entities.”
However, after decades of partly resisting the narrative of modernity, we have now succumbed to it, says Lal. “Now, the Indian middle class has an ambition to do as well as its peers in the West. The face of the record holder has changed — he isn’t just your bizarre sadhu growing 30 inch-long toenails, or running backwards for hours — the new-age record holder is making records that now lead to a more complicated narrative,” observes Lal.
For joy and glory
In Haq’s files, there’s a map of India on which he has traced his route with a sketchpen, which also shows that he visited the capital of every Indian state. Other files are full of petrol bills from every gas station he stopped at and signed letters from managers of the hotels he stayed in. To “make the record meaningful”, he says he also attached a ‘cause’ to it — India against corruption. He switches his laptop on and shows us videos of people in Assam, Bihar and Manipur who draw a blank when Haq asks them about Anna Hazare and India Against Corrruption. He smirks as a 30-something man calls Hazare ‘an India-lover’.
It was all planned. The travel enthusiast says he wanted to explore the country, but badly wanted to do “something impossible”. He timed his world record in a way that allowed him to leave the city on Gandhi Jayanti and return on the anniversary of the 26/11 attacks. “I spent almost Rs 5 lakh on this trip, all for joy and glory,” says Haq, shaking his right leg. The trip’s highlight, he says, was staying with the Army at Digdoll in Kashmir. The lieutenant, who was from Nashik, had ordered his men to inform him whenever someone from Maharashtra passed by. “I’ll never forget the hospitality they extended to me, despite the food shortage.”
Next, he opens a notebook where he has carefully jotted down things he wants to say. He wants to create a world record by riding from Mumbai to London, and back. “You can call these my achievements — things I can tell my kids about when they grow up,” he suggests. “I wanted to call the Guinness team over to felicitate me, but that, I found out, costs $24,000 (more than Rs 12 lakh). I’ve written to the Chief Minister now, to see if he can hold a ceremony for me. Let’s see…” Then, unabashedly, he adds, “Can you put me down as an Adventurer, Biker Extraordinaire’?”
Clearly, ambitions for a Guinness Record, as Shukla, Guinness’ Indian representative says, have moved beyond small towns. Unlike in the past decades, Guinness now gets as many applications from Indian metros as it does from smaller towns. “Also, people now realise that you don’t have to do something ‘weird’ to make or break a record,” he says. As Lal points out, attracting government sponsorship has a large role to play. Unusual records only give you those five seconds of fame. The government, he says, will only look the other way if you’re busy making records by, say, keeping your scooter running continuously for 30 hours when petrol prices are skyrocketing. “Indians were criticised for not having that ‘killer instinct’, we were certain that we were not competitive enough. Now, when Indians see a foreigner attempt a feat, breaking his/her record is their way of showing how competitive they can get,” says Lal.
Goregaon resident and archer Kaustubh Bhosale, 20, is one of them. As you read this, he would have known whether an Italian has broken his Guinness World record of shooting 25 water balloons with a single arrow or not. On April 13, Bhosale left for Italy for the challenge. Bhosale is so broad-shouldered that one may suspect he wears shoulder pads. He hunches a bit while walking and mumbles about how life has changed after he created the Guinness World record in March 2011. “A good bow costs Rs 1.5 lakh and 12 arrows cost Rs 30,000. Before I set the record, my father often took loans to fund my six year-old passion. But now, the government has sponsored me twice,” he says. Bhosale trains at Goregaon’s Prabodhan Archery Centre and has won medals in national level tournaments.
Today, Bhosale “feels different from inside”. I ask whether he didn’t feel special when he won national archery tournaments. “I did,” he says, frowning slightly, “But now I am not just any other normal person. Normal people do nothing,” he says, but quickly rephrases his words when I smile. “I mean, it’s beyond normal, isn’t it?” Of course, it helps that Bhosale doesn’t have to make rounds of offices of prospective sponsors as often now. “Now, some sponsors agree to support me after a couple of meetings,” he says.
Eccentric or maverick?
Mumbai-based sociologist Gita Chadha pauses before she can comment on the Guinness phenomenon. “Today, there’s this general, global inconspicuousness that we experience. In a market and image driven lifestyle, being visible is very important and there’s a desire to sharpen your uniqueness because you feel homogenised in many ways.” Our culture, adds Chadha, rewards quantity — the hits and likes your photographs get on Facebook, how many Olympic medals India wins, and so on. “And these achievements are now so accessible. But are they good or bad? Well, it’s both. On one hand, a Guinness World Record clearly enhances the person’s self-image. And as long as it is not misplaced, having a sense of who you are — and what you can be — is a good thing.” What is worrying though, is how these records further link us with the games of “how much”, she adds.
The shy acrobat
If you asked 17 year-old Kshipra Joshi this, chances are that the shy gymnast will look at you for a few seconds, and shake her head with an apologetic smile. Putting her feelings into words isn’t one of Joshi’s strengths, but performing graceful (and gape-inducing) acrobatics with a ball or a hoop definitely is. In March 2011, the Dadar resident created a Guinness World Record for performing most rotations (18) in a 180-degree balance position within 60 seconds.
Before Joshi was approached by the Guinness team last year, creating records was never on her mind. “When I was five years old, my parents enrolled me at a gymnastics class because I was a hyperactive, impatient child,” she says, clearly illustrating the fact throughout our conversation by either cracking her knuckles and toes, chewing on her nails, or even by rhythmically flexing and relaxing her toes.
“I wouldn’t say the record means the world to me, really. I feel better about my agility, or about the fact that I was captain of my team at the Commonweath Games in Delhi in 2010.” In fact, the attention a record holder gets amuses Joshi. “People asked my parents what I eat, what I do, how they discipline me — it was crazy. I barely even think about it. It was great while it happened,” she smiles. “And no, I am not obsessed by who breaks my record, or makes another one that’s more fancy.”