There was a post by a student counsellor I know, congratulating siblings who have made it to the Indian Book of Records for not missing a single day of school. This teenage brother-sister duo, studying in DPS Ludhiana, have maintained 100 per cent attendance for 14 and 10 years consecutively. This is remarkable for many reasons, the most noteworthy being their resilience against viral fevers, colds and dengue, that are a part of growing up for children in India today. Of course, it also means they don’t have parents who look out of the window and if it’s a freezing January morning decide it’s too cold for kids to go out (I am guilty).
To maintain this level of consistency so early in life is to be commended, for sure. Perhaps these Ludhiana siblings will be driven in other areas of their lives, having learnt very early on that punctuality and regularity is a great habit. One has to wonder, though, whether not missing a day of school qualifies as a trailblazing achievement. It’s more a quirky footnote since it’s only of relevance to a dean sifting through college applications (assuming, we still regard achievement as something everyone aspires to but only a few manage). In India, we take great pride in boasting about winning in areas that hold no significance in the larger scheme of things. The guy with the biggest moustache and the longest nails, no prizes for guessing, is Indian. Is it really something worth talking about that the guy with the longest ear hair is also Indian? In 1995, 42 people fit inside a Maruti 800 and after the car was driven for a few kilometres, this staggering achievement was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.
The records that matter, and concern us all are, however, far from triumphant. The filthiest rivers in the world and the largest number of stray dogs are in India. Our cities have the worst air quality and possibly, the most dangerous roads. Yet, we continue to seek glory in meaningless pursuits and validate someone for wearing a 100-pound turban.
At least, the Shakespearean term, heavy lies the head that wears the crown, got a literal meaning. It could be argued that the definition of success needn’t be narrow and should encompass weird talents, beyond sports and academics. The colourful variety of contestants listed in the Guinness Book have idiosyncratic appeal, from the tallest man to the shortest woman, quietly revealing so many interesting differences among humans that often enough, make us marvel. It’s the reason that the TV show Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not is so successful, the telegenic oddballs they feature perform feats we wouldn’t ever contemplate, or even know exist.
The only possible explanation for the national obsession of breaking records and parents wanting kids to come first in class — it’s two sides of the same coin — is that to be an average Indian is to be embattled by poverty and social injustice. Since aspiring for a place on the Indian cricket team is out of the question, attempting the unthinkable, is a route out of certain obscurity. The training imparted by the education system and home environment is an unspoken, dire, warning that there are always more people than resources, and everything is relentlessly competitive. To differentiate yourself from a billion others requires hard work, so even a 10-year-old is thrust into a record-setting venture. The problem with this breathless sort of one-upmanship is the danger of peaking too early, a burnout, or depression, by the time you’re 30. Maybe it’s only people who come from a place of privilege who can afford to think of life as a marathon and not a race. No doubt there is a formidable amount of focus and determination required to walk on broken glass, or eat the most amount of worms in under one minute. One can only hope that as the nation’s prosperity rises, Indians’ lusty appetite for becoming talking points via anatomical malformations or lurid feats, will turn into something more than what belongs in a carnival show.