On our way to school, Raju and I would pass the house with the mesmerizing sign. It was about halfway down Sundaram Street, barely five minutes’ walk from Royal Matriculation School. We would avoid the shortcut across the grassy vacant lot behind K.V. Pharmacy, so we could stop and stare at the two-story house with a large wrap-around balcony and a rusty grey Ambassador parked forever in the car port. We would stand briefly under a tamarind tree and wonder what amazing feat the occupant of the house had accomplished.
“It must be weight-lifting,” Raju said one morning. “I bet he has big muscles and lifted a cow with one hand.”
“Just one cow? That wouldn’t be enough to set a world record.”
“Then maybe it was an elephant.”
“No, it must be something to do with hair. I bet he has the longest mustache in the world.”
I pictured a man with such a long mustache that it curled around his body hundreds of times, making him look like a spool of thread. A week earlier, my father had taken me to the barbershop, where I had seen several long mustaches. One snaked across the upper lip of Venugopal, the young but balding barber, while others were in a magazine my father thumbed through as we waited our turn, a glossy monthly called Mustache Digest.
“What about eating?” Raju said. “Maybe he has set a world record for number of dosas eaten at one go.”
“No, my father already has that record. I’ve seen him eat 10 dosas for breakfast.”
“Only 10 dosas? My father can eat 20 dosas.”
“Swear to God. Have you seen his stomach? He has enough room for 100 dosas.”
I couldn’t argue with him. His father did have a huge stomach. If there was a world record for dosa-eating, he could probably beat it – and still have enough room to set the idli-eating record as well.
“Come on, let’s go,” I said, knowing that we’d be back there again the next morning, having the same debate.
Our discussion of world records usually took only a few minutes a day – that’s all we could spare if we wanted to avoid getting our fingers rapped for being late to school. But over a period of months during Standard Six, we must have spent many hours trying to figure out what had turned Mr. D. Ramakrishnan into the worldwide celebrity we believed him to be. We knew his name because it was printed in gold letters on the wooden sign attached with wire to his front gate. Underneath his name, in letters that seemed twice as large and lustrous, were the words that captured the attention of anyone passing by: “WORLD RECORD HOLDER.”
We had heard about the sign from Varun, a boy in our class who lived five houses away from Mr. D. Ramakrishnan. He announced one morning, with much fanfare, that a world record holder lived on his street. At first, we were skeptical, but Varun said, “Just come and see. I will show you,” and led a group of us to the house after school – five boys and my sister, Meera, who wondered what all the fuss was about.
“See, what did I tell you?” Varun said, pointing at the sign, which leaned slightly downward, as though it was meant for children’s eyes.
Sudhir, one of my classmates, went to touch it, running his hands over the letters, as if to verify its authenticity. We peered into the front window, but could detect no movements, just the outline of a daybed. The arched gate, with vertical rods shaped like arrows and a padlock the size of my fist, deterred us from venturing any further. We stood there in deep admiration of Mr. D. Ramakrishnan, no less impressed than if he had appeared in front of us, flexing his biceps or unwinding his mustache. We had seen impressive signs in our neighborhood before, but none as awe-inspiring. Sure, Dr. V. Manivannan had listed his various qualifications, including F.R.C.S., which impressed us initially, but only until Varun, who knew a little bit of everything, told us that it wasn’t a big deal – all it stood for was “Finished Required Courses in School.”
“Why would he put that on a sign?” I asked.
“Because he bought a big sign and needs to fill it up,” Varun said. “What else is he going to put there – that his wife is beautiful? Everyone knows that already.”
Mrs. Manivannan was indeed beautiful, as we would often remark when she drove past us in her gleaming red Mercedes, sometimes giving us a wave and a smile. The roads were often dry and dusty, but not a speck of dirt seemed to land on that car.
“One day, I’m going to get myself one of those!” Raju remarked one day.
“You’ll have to become a doctor,” I said.
“What, you think only doctors have beautiful wives?” he said. “Engineers do too.”
If Dr. Manivannan had such an attractive wife, we couldn’t imagine how beautiful Mr. D. Ramakrishnan’s wife must be. Surely a world record holder could marry any woman he wanted. Once you were the best in the world at something, there would be a long line of people eager to befriend you, not just beautiful women, but also the Prime Minister and President, actors and actresses, and various other celebrities, not to mention ordinary people like the short dhoti-clad vendor who pushed his colorful cart, full of frozen treats, through the neighborhood every afternoon, shouting, “I scheme! I scheme!”
We stopped him one day to ask if he knew what record Mr. D. Ramakrishnan had set. He pulled up his vest to wipe the sweat on his brow, giving us a glimpse of his hairy, protruding stomach. “All I know is, it’s not for i-scheme eating,” he said with a chuckle. “He never buy i-scheme from me.”
What record could Mr. D. Ramakrishnan possibly have set? No one seemed to know, but everyone had their guesses.
“It must have something to do with reproduction,” said Sudhir, ever the comedian. “Indians are good at reproducing. Maybe Mr. Ramakrishnan has 100 children.”
“He would need many wives for that,” Varun said.
“Two would do,” Sudhir said. “You can have one child with each wife every year for 50 years.”
“I don’t see any children around,” Varun said. “Where are they?”
Even my father, when he heard about the sign, had his own theory. He believed that the record had something to do with brain power. Indians, he proclaimed, were the smartest people in the world. Unlike Americans and other westerners, they had no need for calculators and computers. “Our brains are computers by themselves,” he said. “You just have to program them and they can do anything.”
“But Appa, what world record did he set with his brain?” I asked. “Did they just measure its circumference?”
Meera laughed. “If that’s how they do it, then Arnold Schwarzenegger has the record. He definitely has the biggest head in the world.”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Appa said. “You have studied about pi, no? You can keep on reciting the digits after the decimal point – all the way to infinity. It is a great test of memorization.”
He recalled that one Indian man had recited more than 30,000 digits and held the world record in the 1980s, only to have a Japanese man beat him. “This Mr. Ramakrishnan, he must have reclaimed the record for India,” Appa said.
My mother, for her part, didn’t think it had anything to do with brainpower. “Indians are very good at yoga and meditation,” Amma said. “He must have set a record for meditating. That is why you have not seen him. He must be meditating somewhere, extending his record.”
“Snakes!” Meera suddenly chimed in, like she’d just had an epiphany. “We have many snakes in India. I think he has set a record for number of days in a cage with snakes.”
“No man with a brain would do that,” Appa said.
“He must have been meditating in the cage,” Amma said. “That’s why the snakes didn’t bite him.”
It was fun to discuss Mr. D. Ramakrishnan’s world record, but even more fun to try to set records of our own. Raju, who had been my best friend for three years, ever since his family had moved into our apartment complex, was intent on setting a world record in cricket. He would bounce a ball off his bat dozens of times and claim to have set a record that even the great Sachin Tendulkar couldn’t surpass. But the moment he handed his bat to Sudhir, the record would easily be broken. Sudhir would jump up, arms raised above his head.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a new world record!” he would shout, taking great pleasure in the dismay on Raju’s face. “Please give a round of applause to Sudhir Venkateswaran, World Record Holder and Pride of India! Please form an orderly line to request his autograph.”
I wanted to set a world record too, but lacked confidence in my athletic ability and brainpower. And the thought of facing even one snake gave me the shivers. If there was a world record for running away from snakes, I might have a chance.
But I didn’t want to leave all the glory for my friends, so after much contemplation, I chose to pursue a record that seemed to require hardly any effort: growing the world’s longest fingernail. I picked the nail on my left pinkie, believing it to be the finger I used the least. I hoped the nail would grow so long that I’d be able to touch the ceiling of our home. I pictured myself on the front page of The Hindu, with a headline that said, “Chennai Boy Nails World Record.”
I didn’t tell my friends about my goal, because I didn’t want any competition. They would find out soon enough – when the horde of TV and newspaper reporters were standing outside our house, hoping to interview me or just catch a glimpse of my world-famous fingernail.
But setting a record wasn’t as easy as I thought. That fingernail grew as slowly as one of my mother’s cactus plants – no more than a millimeter a week. At this rate, I would be 90 before I could claim a record. It was almost as if the nail realized what I was doing and wanted to resist. Was it too shy for all the publicity? “Don’t worry, nail,” I whispered to it now and then. “I won’t let them take too many photos of you.”
I stared at the nail almost every hour in school, taking out my wooden ruler to measure it, but I was always disappointed. Then one day I had an idea. Every evening, after my mother had made tea, she dumped the used tea leaves onto the soil of the two leafy vines that we called “money plants” – one in the sitting room, the other in the kitchen – to make them grow faster. Would it work for my nail? I wasn’t sure, but it was worth experimenting.
I asked my mother for a cup of tea each evening, saying it would help me stay alert and study better. I took the tea to my room and when it had cooled sufficiently, dipped my finger in it, hoping that the tea might stimulate my nail and trigger a growth spurt. I followed this strategy for two whole weeks, managing to hide my experiment from everyone except Meera. She walked into my room one day without knocking and spotted me pulling my finger quickly out of the tea.
“What were you doing with your finger?” she asked.
“Oh, just … uh … stirring my tea.”
“With your little finger?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Have you heard of a spoon?”
“Have you heard of ‘minding your own business’?”
Thankfully, Meera did not tell my parents what she had seen and my experiment continued for a few more days, until that fateful morning at the breakfast table, when my father’s eyes fell upon my nail, now almost a centimeter long. Seeing the direction of his gaze, I quickly balled up my fingers, but it was too late. He ordered me to hold out my hand and pointed at the pinky.
“Why is that nail like that?”
“Just forgot to cut it.” I tried to sound as casual as possible.
“Go and cut it this instant!”
“But Appa, I’m trying to set a world record.”
“World record? If you don’t go and cut it right now, I’m going to set a world record with my belt on your bottom.”
Raju had a wide grin on his face one morning, as I met him outside our house for the walk to school. “Look what I have,” he said, holding up a thick paperback book with a missing cover.
“No, Guinness World Records, 1998.”
“Where did you get it?”
“My thatha bought it from a roadside seller. He let me have it.”
“Did you find him in there?”
“Who else? Your father?”
“Shut up! I haven’t found him, but I found many other Indians.”
I had to wait until our lunch break at school to hear about all those Indians. Raju recited all their feats, entertaining me and the other boys. We felt immense pride as we heard about world record holders such as Radhakant Bajpai, who had grown his ear hair to a length of 13.2 cm; Ram Singh Yadav, who had moved an airplane fifty-four feet by pulling a rope with his teeth; and Arun Dev, who had played 18 musical instruments at the same time, using every appendage in his body.
Most amazing to me was the record set by Shridhar Chillal for longest fingernails on a single hand. His five nails totaled 6.15 meters, with the longest reaching 1.3 meters. Even if my father hadn’t intervened, I had no hope of ever achieving that record.
“What about the man on your street, Varun?” Sudhir asked. “Why isn’t he in this book?”
“He must have set his record after this book was published,” Varun said. “It’s five years old already.”
“Or maybe he’s a fake,” Sudhir said. “Just trying to get some attention.”
“He’s not a fake!” Varun shouted.
“How do you know?”
“I just know. How much you wanna bet?”
“How are we going to find out?”
“Why don’t we knock on his door and ask him?”
“The gate is always locked.”
“Maybe you can call him,” I suggested. “Stand outside and shout, ‘Mr. Ramakrishnan!'”
Varun shook his head. “No way. Maybe you can do it. What if he has the world record for fighting? I don’t want to take any chances.”
Sudhir shook his head at Varun. “No guts, huh?”
Varun glared at him. “I have guts, but I also have brains. Why don’t you do it if you’re so brave?”
“Fine, I’ll do it. Right after school.”
As soon as school ended, four of us strode with great anticipation to Mr. Ramakrishnan’s house. The gate was padlocked as usual and we couldn’t see any movements through the window.
“Go ahead,” Varun said, nudging Sudhir.
“Just a second,” Sudhir said, as though he needed to muster the courage. He took a deep breath and yelled, “Mr. Rama … Mr. Rama …”
All of us burst out laughing. “What’s wrong? You can’t say his full name?” Varun said.
“I can,” Sudhir said. “But when I try to say it loudly, it doesn’t come out.”
It was then that we heard a tapping sound and saw the door open. An old man appeared in the doorway, holding a walking stick. He had just a few strands of hair on his head.
“Boys, what do you want?” he said. “Can I do something for you?”
“Sir, we are looking for Mr. D. Ramakrishnan,” Varun said. “Is he home?”
“I am he,” the man said. “What do you want with me?”
We gasped. Was this really Mr. D. Ramakrishnan? We had pictured him in many different ways, but never like this.
“Sorry for disturbing you, sir,” Sudhir said, pulling us away. “We made a mistake.”
“But the bet …” Varun whispered to us. He raised his voice: “Are you a world record holder, sir?”
The man smiled. “Oh yes, you saw the sign. Wait boys, I’ll let you in.”
We looked at each other, unsure what to do. “Let’s just leave,” Sudhir whispered.
“No,” Varun said. “Let’s find out.”
The man hobbled down the stairs, using his cane for balance. He turned a key in the padlock and opened the gate for us. “Come inside, boys. Come inside.” We followed him into a sitting room that was sparsely furnished, a daybed on one side and a sofa on another. “Please sit,” he said. “I’ll get something.”
All four of us squeezed onto the sofa. “What’s he going to get?” Raju asked.
“Maybe refreshments,” Sudhir said.
But the man returned with only a sheet of paper. “So, you want to know about the world record?”
We nodded our heads in anticipation. What world record could this old man have possibly set? Did he set it many years ago, when he was young and fit?
“My wife and I have been married 50 years and in all those years, we have never raised our voices at each other,” he said. “Last year, my son wrote to the Guinness people to tell them about it and they sent us this letter.”
He handed the letter to Varun. “Be careful, boys. Don’t tear it.”
We couldn’t wait to read the letter and huddled around Varun. It had an official “Guinness World Records” letterhead.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Ramakrishnan,
After receiving a letter from your son, Ravi, dated October 3, 2001, we would like to congratulate you on your very admirable achievement. Although we do not keep an official record on spouses not raising their voices at each other, as it would be too difficult to verify, we do believe that if what your son says is true, you may indeed have set a world record and should be quite proud. Congratulations to both of you!
Guinness World Records Inc.
We were quiet for a minute, unsure what to say. We had been expecting an amazing feat, not something that seemed so ordinary. Surely there were many couples in the world who had never raised their voices at each other.
Finally, Varun spoke up. “Did they send you the sign?”
The man smiled. “No, my son had it made. It was a gift for our 50th anniversary. I didn’t want to put it up, but he insisted.”
“Where is your wife?” Sudhir asked.
“She is at Good Health Hospital. She has been ill for a few months.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said, and my friends nodded.
“I have been by her side almost all the time. You were lucky to find me home.”
As we left Mr. Ramakrishnan’s home, he handed each of us a biscuit. “Come back anytime, but I’m not sure if I’ll be home. Just call my name and if I’m home, I’ll give you another biscuit.”
We thanked him and closed the gate behind us. “It’s not an official record,” Varun said. “So, I guess you win the bet, Sudhir.”
“It’s not a fake record either,” Sudhir said. “So, let’s just let it go. No one wins.”
“Too bad it wasn’t a weight-lifting record,” Raju said. “If he lifted his wife every day for 50 years, that would be something.”
We laughed. “Any type of record would be better,” I said.
But when I got home and told my parents about Mr. Ramachandran’s record, they were astounded.
“Fifty years and they haven’t raised their voices at each other?” Appa said. “That is amazing. Your mother and I, we can’t go 50 minutes without shouting at each other.”
Amma shook her head. “Fifty minutes? Stop exaggerating. We shout at each other every 50 seconds.”
Appa smiled. “I can’t believe it – fifty years is a long time to never quarrel.”
“But it’s not like lifting a cow,” I said.
“Anyone can lift a cow,” Appa said. “The strongest people are the ones who do not need to show their strength.”
The next morning, Raju and I stopped again in front of Mr. Ramakrishnan’s house on our way to school.
“I wonder what he really did,” I said.
“Maybe he swam from India to Sri Lanka in world record time,” Raju said.
“Indians are not that good at swimming. Maybe he sailed around the world.”
Raju nodded. “Yes, that’s it. Maybe he spent 50 years on a sailboat, traveling from one country to another. Fifty years on a sailboat with his wife sitting calmly by his side.”