In 1951, as a consequence of an entirely inconsequential argument during a shooting excursion — which is the fastest game bird? — a Guinness executive realised that there was no resource available to which reference could be made to settle the argument. Canny marketing man that he was, he soon realised that, evening after evening, night after night, in pubs across Ireland and beyond, there must arise similar inconsequential arguments — fuelled by the stout that it was his business to sell. Thus the idea of the Guinness Book of Records was born, the ultimate resource for people who wished to claim, and argue over, foolish records.
The Guinness Book started small, as a complimentary giveaway, but soon became a phenomenal (and continuing) commercial success. It was initially put together by two brothers — the McWhirters, Ross and Norris — who were famous fact-grubbers. In 1975, Ross was shot dead by the Provisional Irish Republican Army, an event whose cultural significance compares with the killing of Shardha Ram Phillauri, author of the ubiquitous bhajan, “Om Jai Jagdish Hare”, by an enraged Muslim fanatic.
The Guinness Book of Records occupies a special place in Indian life. Popularly known as the “Guineas Book”, it represents the horizon of aspiration for a variety of normal, everyday cranks. For the anonymous millions who are marooned in the mundane — dust unto dust — the Guinness Book of Records offers an accessible way of reaching out for recognition by the “world”, because of course the Guinness Book of Records is, officially or otherwise, the Guinness Book of World Records. It provides a hospitable context for their extreme antics — eating rosogullas or, if you are a Bihari parent, pushing your two-year-old to clear the medical entrance exam. A claim to the Guinness Book is duly preferred and, provided the antic is sufficiently extreme and obscure, duly granted. And instantly there is cause for celebration in some teeming mofussil backwater.