The mystery of Gustad Merwanji Hathiram


Today is the 44th death anniversary of my grand uncle and world cyclist Gustad Hathiram and an apt day to recount his incredible adventure and tragic disappearance… A real man, incredibly brave, a true hero… They don’t make them like him anymore!

The three men knelt before Pope Pius XI, thanking God for their luck so far, and asking for blessings from the pontiff for their onward travails. It was 15th October, 1924. Dressed in khakis, Gustad Hathiram, Keki Pochkhanawala and Adi Hakim were once again at the outset of a dare – one in a series of adventures that had started off exactly one year ago, from the dusty streets of Gowalia Tank, Mumbai, from where 6 gallant Parsi youth had set off on an unbelievable expedition – to circumnavigate the globe – on bicycle.

After weaving an intricate web of lies to avoid their parents’ ire, holding secret conclaves and making fledgling attempts to gather money, these 3 along with their colleagues Jal Bapasola, Rustam Bhumgara and Nariman Kapadia had set off with a few clothes, a battered second hand compass, and copies of the map of the world. They choose their route to make sure that they passed through some of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth, for their objective was to show the world that Indians could do something never done before, even though the British ruled them.

From Mumbai the cyclists headed to Delhi passing through various parts of central India. After meeting the Viceroy, Lord Reading, they cycled through the Punjab and on to Baluchistan, crossing the Duki pass at 11,000 feet in three feet of snow and temperatures of minus 13° C, finally reaching the last outpost of colonial India – Varechhah on 20th January 1924. From there, the group sent its first post card to their parents, giving them details of their real journey and assuring them that they would soon be home. Crossing into their ancient motherland – Iran, the 6 Parsis eventually reached Tehran in May 1924, meeting Reza Shah Pahlavi. At Tehran, Nariman chose to return back to India, while the remaining 5 proceeded on to Baghdad. Despite dire warnings to turn back, the cyclists set a new record – crossing the Mesopotamian desert from Baghdad to Aleppo – a distance of 956 kilometers. Struggling through shifting sand, temperatures over 55° C and delirious with sand-fly fever, the cyclists were saved from certain death by Bedouins and reached Aleppo after 23 days.

At Damascus, the 5 split into 2 groups. While Gustad, Keki and Adi proceeded onto Europe, Jal and Rustam went on to Jerusalem. The trio reached Brindsi in Italy by steamer and then went on to Naples and Rome – receiving the Pope’s blessings for another audacious dare – crossing the Alps on cycle. The three reached Zimplo and proceeded to cross the Gothard pass. After getting caught in a relentless storm, suffering from severe frostbite and bleeding, all three passed out and were buried in the snow, and would have perished had the Franciscan monks and their St. Bernard dogs not rescued them! They reached Paris and proceeded thence to London, where they received media coverage and adulation. After 23 days of travel through England, they caught the steamer to reach New York.

Here Gustad announced to the others that he had no plans of going further or coming back to India – he wanted to live in New York. The other two cyclists who had separated at Damascus soon reached New York. All four went 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 soul mate on the trip Keki returned back to India by steamer. The remaining three decided to go on and cycled throughout the States. On 15th October 1925 – their third anniversary, they set a new record, cycling non-stop for 16 hours covering 307 kilometers.

From America, they crossed over to Japan and from there became the first cyclists to enter Korea. Crossing Korea they entered Manchuria and cycled through some of the most difficult terrains, braving the intense hatred for foreigners, often starving for days. They became the first cyclists to cross the great Gobi desert and reached Canton in October 1926. From there they proceeded to Hong Kong, and cycled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and the North Eastern states to Calcutta and from there to Colombo, the whole of South India and eventually reached Mumbai to the accompaniment of over 1000 cyclists and widespread media coverage on 18th March 1928 after covering nearly 71,000 kilometers in 4 years, 5 months and 3 days.

Amid the festivities, one family nursed its grief. Dinshawji Hathiram, the elder brother and guardian of Gustad, and my grandfather, was inconsolable. In 1930, he received a letter from Gustad warning him against trying to contact his brother and asking for some Sudreh and Kusti and a prayer book. My grandfather kept his word – and that was the last we heard of Gustad Hathiram. The last link in the chain was lost when Dinshawji passed away in 1987. The question remained unanswered – what happened to Gustad?

Many years later I was giving a talk on the importance of the Muktad and the need for Parsis to remember their dear departed. The next day as I sat down for prayers I doubled over in pain as though someone had punched me in the stomach. Still gasping for breath, there was only one thought in the mind – ‘you talk of remembering the dead, what about your Gustad kaka?’ After the prayers were over, I thought long and hard about what had happened. I realised that Gustad kaka would have been over 100 years old and was most probably dead. Yet no prayers had ever been done for him. Shortly thereafter, on Roj Fravardin Mah Fravardin – All Souls Day and the day to remember those whose date of death was not known, I performed the first Baj for Gustad kaka and begged forgiveness for my carelessness. A few months later, while praying, I was once again punched in the stomach by an unseen force and the same thought: ‘what about Gustad kaka?’On the next Fravardin Roj, I consecrated a new Karasya for him and put the same on our family table during the Muktad. A few days after the Muktad, I got my final blow in the stomach and the thought: ‘You are not doing enough! Search for Gustad kaka!’.

A few days later, in September 2002, as I was browsing the Internet at office, a headline ad banner flashed: ‘Search for your lost ancestors!’. As I clicked the ad, I was redirected to the genealogy site Ancestry.com. Half-heartedly I typed in ‘Gustad Hathiram.’ A few seconds later I was staring at the screen that read: ‘One death record found.’ The record revealed that Gustad Hathiram had passed away in the sunny town of St. Petersburg, Florida on 27th November 1973. In this manner, through the power of our prayers and my constant thoughts about his destiny, I was able to locate my grand kaka, nearly 30 years after his death! My joy at finding my grand-uncle was tempered with sadness at the circumstances. The details on his death certificate told us he worked as an auto mechanic, and he had never married. Why did he not contact us all these years? Did he have any friends? What were his final thoughts? These and a myriad other questions will haunt me for the rest of my life.

Thereafter, on 24th November 2002, I performed the first four days ceremonies for Gustad Hathiram and continued with the other prayers later on. As the prayers progressed, more and more information became miraculously available on him. Old photographs tumbled out of cupboards, a newspaper article written by me resulted in the relatives of the other Parsi cyclists contacting me. A few months later, we all met – descendants of the original 6 who had taken off from Bombay in 1923. Through these interactions and the hard work of the Hakim family, the original book written by Adi Hakim on their fantastic journey was re-published by Roli Books.

Readers of Frashogard! We have often recounted the miracles which happened many hundreds of years ago on this blog. But this is a miracle which took place just a few years ago – to an average and hardly pious person, in an age filled with pollution, materialism and no respect for God. If our Avesta prayers have this much effect that they can verily locate a person long dead in an alien land and pull his relatives back on track, can we imagine the power of Avesta when a really pious and holy man were to utter it? There is no lack of miracles, there is only lack of faith – in ourselves and in Ahura Mazda.

On 24th November 2003 – exactly one year after performing Gustad kaka’s four days ceremonies, I was appointed as the Panthaky of the Ustad Saheb Behramshah Nowroji Shroff Daremeher at Behram Baug Jogeshwari. Today, as I finish seven years in that post I offer my deep and humble thanks to the Creator and the Holy Fire for allowing me to attain what I always wanted and for giving me a chance to serve Him in this day and age. My thoughts are also with the Ruvan of Gustad Merwanji Hathiram – may it progress from whatever station in nature it may be and may it continue to watch over me and guide me to my ultimate destiny.

Ervad Marzban J. Hathiram

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