In the late ’80s, a few months after moving to Mumbai, Bibhuti Nayak chanced upon a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records at a pavement shop near Marine Drive, Mumbai. Having come to the city from Cuttack, Orissa, with dreams of carving a good life, Nayak spent hours flipping through the book’s pages, in a bid to find inspiration and respite from his dreary accounting job. However, the records captured by his fellow Indians seemed like a joke. “Longest beard. Longest fingernails. Most time sitting on pole. Most snakebites survived. Nothing matched my desire to branch out in a new direction,” writes Stephen Kelman, voicing Nayak’s predicament in his latest book Man on Fire (Bloomsbury).
The Booker-shortlisted author’s second book is a novelised biography of Nayak, who has a slew of world records — including Guinness, Limca and AXN — to his name, for extreme physical activities such as fingertip push-ups, stomach sit-ups and kicks to the unprotected groin. Kelman first heard about Nayak in 2008, through Paul Merton in India, a TV series on BBC’s Channel 5 that followed the comedian on his travels through India. “I saw this man, standing unfazed as he repeatedly got kicked in the groin by Merton. I wanted to know everything about him,” recalls Kelman.
After striking a friendship with Nayak through two years of email exchanges, Kelman received a signing amount for his first novel, Pigeon English, in 2010, and packed his bags for India. For 10 days, Kelman trailed Nayak, charting his diet, training and his work as a sports reporter.
Instead of writing a straightforward biography, Kelman introduced a fictional element through the character of John Lock, a frustrated, cancer-afflicted Englishman who comes to India to assist Nayak in achieving the elusive Guinness record — by hitting him in the groin with baseball bats. Lock’s character, in fact, was culled from Kelman’s own experiences in India, and also inspired by his father, who beat cancer twice.
Watching Nayak in action enforces Kelman’s point. Asked to demonstrate, the 47-year-old effortlessly performs fingertip and backhand push-ups on the terrace of his Mumbai home. “I got into athletics when I was seven, it kept me from getting ragged in college later,” he says. Hailing from a humble background, Nayak yearned to make it to record books in ways that would send a positive message to the common man. In fact, his groin kick challenge was initially rejected by Guinness and Limca as the organisations found it potentially dangerous from a medical point of view. “Shaolin monks have actually been doing this for a long time. There’s no part of the body that cannot be conditioned,” he states.
His obsession was not without its setbacks. For his first Guinness, where he broke a record for the most number of stomach sit-ups — 1,448 — he suffered a brain haemorrhage, even slipping into a coma for three days. “The greed for a world record took me further. When you achieve something, you don’t want to climb down,” he says.