Earlier this week, an important chapter in fingernail history came to a close: Shridhar Chillal of Pune, India, got his nails cut for the first time in 66 years. For all intents and purposes, the “nail clipping ceremony,” held at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in New York’s Times Square where the impressive talons are now on display, was really more of an industrial-strength manicure, with a technician using a rotary tool to cut off the massive lengths of keratin.
Images of Chillal’s nails beg the questions: What? How? And, most importantly, why?
According to Ripley’s, back when Chillal was a 14-year-old student in 1952, he was horsing around with a friend when he accidentally broke his teacher’s nail. In parts of India, growing one long nail has traditionally been viewed as a status symbol to show that the person doesn’t need to participate in manual labor. The accident earned Chillal a scolding and the admonition that he didn’t understand how important the nail was because he had never committed to anything.
That rebuke would have long-lasting effects; Chillal decided to grow out his own nails, leading to decades of tending and protecting the nails on his left hand, though he kept his right hand’s nails trimmed. He eventually earned the official status as the person with the longest nails on one hand ever recorded. “I don't know whether the teacher is dead now or not but I would definitely like to say that the thing for which you scolded me, I took it as a challenge and I have completed the challenge and now, I am here,” Chillal told Sky News.
Despite the massive protrusions coming off his fingertips, Guinness World Records reports he was able to live something of a normal life. Not only did a very special lady marry him, they raised two children and have three grandchildren, who we assume are all manicurists. He also worked as a government press photographer, using a special handle on his camera to accommodate his nails.
He first appeared in Guinness World Records in 1979, and in 2015 he was certified as having the longest nails on a single hand ever. Those fierce claws had some upsides and downsides. He told Guinness that the nails made him a celebrity, and that he never had to wait in line wherever he went. But it also made sleeping difficult since the nails are very fragile. “I can’t move much, so every half an hour or so I wake up and move my hand to the other side of the bed,” he said.
As he’s aged and the nails have grown longer, they have been difficult to handle. Not only are they a problem on windy days, decades of carrying around the awkward and increasingly heavy nails has led to permanent disability—he can’t open his hand or flex his fingers. “I am in pain,” he tells David Stubbings at Guinness. “With every heart beat all five fingers, my wrist, elbow and shoulder are hurting a lot and at the tip of the nail there’s a burning sensation always.”
But after all that time he invested in his nails, Chillal didn’t just want to clip them and toss them in the garbage. “He approached us when he was ready to cut his nails,” Ripley’s spokesperson Suzanne Smagala-Potts tells Jennings Brown at Gizmodo. “He wasn’t just going to sell his nails to anybody. He wanted them to be memorialized in a museum.”
He also wanted a payday. Ripley’s won’t divulge the amount they paid for the talons, but probably enough to make the pain go away. “[I] will say it was a hefty figure and it will be enough for Mr. Chillal to retire,” Smagala-Potts says. “Growing your nails as a retirement plan—who knew?”
Ripley’s notes that when laid flat, all together the now 82-year-old’s cut fingernails span more than 31 feet.
Chillal is not the only long-nail aficionado to make the record books. Lee Redmond of Salt Lake City, Utah, holds the women’s record for the longest fingernails ever on both hands (sadly, she lost them in a car accident several years back). The late Melvin Boothe also from the United States, holds the men’s record. Ayanna Williams of Houston, Texas, holds the current women’s record for the longest nails on both hands; a part-time manicurist herself, she says it takes her two to three bottles of nail polish per manicure to keep them lacquered.