FROM THE ARCHIVES…..
Around the world in 53 months
Ervad Marzban Hathiram, TNN | Nov 15, 2002, 11.14PM IST
MUMBAI: The three men knelt before Pope Pius XI, thanking God for their luck so far and seeking the pontiff ‘s blessings for their onward journey.
The date was October 15, 1924. Dressed in khakis, Gustad Hathiram, Keki Pochkhanawala and Adi Hakim were in the midst of an adventure that had commenced exactly a year ago when six young men set out from the dusty streets of Gowalia Tank in Mumbai on an unbelievable expedition—one which involved circumnavigating the globe on bicycle.
After weaving an intricate web of lies to avoid their parents’ ire, holding secret conclaves and making brave attempts to gather money, these three, along with their friends Jal Bapasola, Rustam Bhumgara and Nariman Kapadia had set off with a few clothes, a second-hand compass and crude copies of the map of the world. They chose a route that ensured that they would pass through terribly inhospitable terrains, for their objective was to show the world that, although the British ruled them, Indians were capable of much.
From Mumbai the cyclists headed to Delhi, passing through central India. After meeting the Viceroy, Lord Reading, they cycled through the Punjab and on to Baluchistan, crossing the Duki pass at 11,000 ft. They ploughed through three feet of snow and battled temperatures of minus 13 degrees C before finally reaching Varechhah—the last outpost of colonial India on January 20, 1924. From there, the youngsters sent their first postcards to their parents, revealing the details of their journey (which they had somehow managed to keep secret).
Crossing into their ancient motherland, Iran, the young Parsis reached Tehran, where they met Reza Shah Pahlavi. There, Nariman chose to return back to India and his fiance, while the rest proceeded to Baghdad. Despite dire warnings, they set a new record—crossing the Mesopotamian desert from Baghdad to Aleppo in 23 days. During these 956 kilometers they struggled through shifting sands, temperatures that crossed 55 degrees C and sand-fly-fever- induced delirium, and it was only thanks to a group of Bedouins that they escaped certain death. In Damascus, the group had differences and split into two.While Gustad, Keki and Adi proceeded to Europe, Jal and Rustam went on to Jerusalem. The trio reached Brindsi in Italy by steamer and then went on to Naples and Rome, where they sought the the Pope’s blessings before plunging into the next audacious chapter of their journey—crossing the Alps by bicycle. The three reached Zimplo and crossed the Gothard pass. But they were caught in a relentless storm and, suffering from severe frostbite, they collapsed and were buried in the snow. Once again, they would certainly have perished had Franciscan monks and their St. Bernard dogs not rescued them. It must have been with a sense of relief that they reached the boulevards of Paris and proceeded to London, where they received much media coverage and adulation.
After 23 days of travel through England, they caught the steamer to New York.Here Gustad announced to the others that he didn’t plan to return to India—he had decided to live in New York. The other two cyclists who had separated at Damascus also arrived in New York, and all four tried to convince Gustad to change his mind. But Gustad refused to meet them and, instead, slipped a letter under their hotel door. ‘Think that I drowned in the Atlantic, my friends, for the Gustad you knew is now no more.’
Heartbroken, Gustad’s soulmate on the trip, Keki, returned to India by steamer. But the other three continued their adventure, cycling across the US. On October 15, the third anniversary of their travels, they set a new record, covering 307 km in 16 exhausting hours.
From America, the determined group crossed over Japan and became the first cyclists to enter Korea. They then pedalled their way into Manchuria, braving the local hatred for foreigners and often starving for days. They became the first cyclists to cross the Gobi desert and reached Canton in October 1926. From there they proceeded to Hong Kong, and whizzed through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and the North Eastern states to Calcutta. They then proceeded to Colombo and covered the whole of South India—eventually reaching Mumbai on March 18, 1928, with a fan following of 1,000 cyclists and widespread media coverage. They had covered nearly 71,000 kilometers in four years, five months and three days.
Amidst these festivities, however, one family nursed its grief. My grandfather Dinshawji Hathiram, the elder brother of Gustad,was inconsolable. In 1930 he received last letter asking for some sudreh (the sacred shirt worn by Parsis), a prayer book and delivering a firm warning that he should not try to contact Gustad again.My grandfather complied—and that was the last we heard of Gustad Hathiram. A month ago, while surfing the Internet, I reached the genealogy site Ancestry.com and spotted the tantalisingly offer: ‘Search for your missing ancestors.’ Half-heartedly I typed in ‘Gustad Hathiram’ and a few seconds later found myself staring at a screen that read: ‘One death record found.’ This revealed that Gustad Hathiram had died in the sunny town of St Petersburg, Florida, in 1973. My joy at finding my grand-uncle was tempered with sadness at the circumstances. His death certificate told us he had worked as an auto mechanic, and that he had never married. Why didn’t he contact us all these years? What were his final thoughts? These and a myriad other questions will always haunt me.
Nevertheless, this chance find led me to rediscover that long-forgotten journey so filled with colour and courage. And as I read about their bold travels, I feel compelled one day retrace that fascinating journey and pay homage to the unsung hero in my family.
(This writer would be grateful if the families of the other cyclists on the voyage could contact him at email@example.com*)
* The above email address is not in use. The correct one is:
Courtesy : Mehernosh Kapadia