Bibhuti Nayak: A Life of Recordshttps://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/bibhuti-nayak-a-life-of-records/

Bibhuti Nayak: A Life of Records

In Man on Fire, British author Stephen Kelman chronicles the story of Bibhuti Nayak, who holds a slew of records for extreme endurance activities.

Bibhuti Nayak (Source: Narendra Waskar)
Bibhuti Nayak (Source: Narendra Waskar)

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.

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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.

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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.