Category Archives: Books

Life & Times of Sir Hormusjee C. Dinshaw – Founder of Zoroastrian Bank

I have much pleasure in writing this Foreword to the life of Sir Hormusjee Cowasjee Dinshaw, an excellent volume so ably written by Mr. A. N. Joshi, BA., LLB., an Advocate of the Bombay High Court.
Sir Hormusjee, who is a well known figure in his community, is the head of the Adenwalia family which has for some generations made a great name as merchants and financiers at Aden and Bombay. The history of their rise from poverty to affluence makes very instructive reading. The kindness and courtesy of the Adenwallas are pro-verbial and Indians travelling between India and Europe can never forget the great hospitality that has always been extended to them by Sir Hormusjee and his family whenever they pass through Aden.
Sir Hormusjee is a very unassuming, kind and liberal gentleman and he has always extended his helping hand to all objects of public usefulness. His silent charity to people of his own community as well as of other communities is well-known in Bombay. For his philanthropy and other acts of public utility he has made himself very popular not only in Aden and Bombay but in other parts of the Presidency as well. A detailed biography therefore of such a personality will be welcomed by the public-

BOMBAY, 10th June, 1939.


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The tale of Indian cyclists who circumnavigated the world of a century ago

‘The Bicycle Diaries’: The tale of Indian cyclists who circumnavigated the world of a century ago

An excerpt from the book’s introductory chapter, ‘Freak fall; Fascinating finds’ by Anoop Babani and Savia Viegas.

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.

— Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes

Life’s defining moments usually come on a high – a victory, an achievement, a breakthrough, an award or simply falling in love. Mine came with an injurious fall. After three decades of hectic existence, we had moved from India’s maddening megapolis of Mumbai to neighbouring Goa. This idyllic, coastal state was once a favourite abode of flower-children and hippies and now home to some crazy-rich Indians and yuppies.

A few years after moving to Goa, I took to cycling. Savia joined me on my escapades later. We have never been a cyclist – it is impossible to be one in Mumbai. We came to cycling rather late, in our sixties and quite unexpectedly. It began with neighbourly encounters and inspiration by a duo of passionate and professional bikers, Dr Belinda Viegas-Mueller and Richard Mueller. The subsequent camaraderie with Dr Balasubramaniam Iyer (Bala) – my guru and cycling buddy to this day – worked the magic.

I took to cycling almost instantly, discovering not only did I adore it but was good at it. Cycling up the hills and plunging down their slopes – through thick green cover, amidst bird song and morning light filtering through trees – soon became, and has remained a singularly spiritual experience. A bicycle is bound to the road in a way no other vehicle can. Once addicted, you can never cease to be a cyclist.

In 2016, I fell off my bike, badly injuring my rib cage.“No surgery, no medication, only rest” was the medical mantra. Barred from cycling for weeks, we chose to read about it.

How and when did cycling come to India?

Who and from where were the early cyclists? What kind of cycles did they ride and why?

This curiosity about our predecessors gradually unveiled the fact that it was well-to-do Indians, mainly in Bombay and Calcutta, who took to cycling in the 1890s inspired by their British peers. Such was the allure of riding that cycling clubs came up, founded by the small-yet-powerful Parsi community in Bombay and Bhadraloks (educated and prosperous Bengalis) in Calcutta. The cycles were predominantly imported, British-made and heavy on the pocket. These were used for leisure, sports, fitness and global tours.

Global journeys on cycles! That sounded impossible and unbelievable. Digging deeper, we were amazed to discover that a group of six cyclists had actually ventured on such an incredible journey way back in October 1923. All of them were Parsi from Bombay, in their early-to-mid twenties. Three of them – Adi B Hakim, Jal P Bapasola, and Rustom J Bhumgara – went on to complete the global ride over the next four-and-a-half years.

This trio became the first Indian globetrotters to undertake the most arduous journey of their lives.

They pedalled 71,000 km – at times in 60 degrees Celsius, for days without food and some days without water, across pirate-infested territories and in swamplands, through dense jungles and “up 6,600 ft amongst the terrible solitudes of the Alps”.

Framroze Davar and Gustav Sztavjanik before starting their ride across Amazon, in Lima, Peru, in 1928. Photo credit: Author provided

On returning to Bombay in March 1928, Hakim, Bapasola and Bhumgara recalled being “surrounded by people who had come to receive us… and garlanded till we were buried in flowers”. They hoped that “the public of Bombay will not fail to extend (‘unique welcome’) to another son of Mother India – Scouter F J Davar, who is shortly due in Bombay on the conclusion of a similar enterprise”.

They were not the only ones, then, we were amazed to discover. Three months after the Super Six group had commenced their ride, Framroze J Davar – another Bombay Parsi and a sports journalist – embarked on a global expedition in January 1924.

His was the most adventurous, lengthier and partly, a solitary journey. The 30-year-old Framroze initially pedalled more than 9,000 km entirely on his own, till he reached Austria 11 months later. In Vienna, he met Gustav Sztavjanik, his cycling mate. The duo rode 1,10,000 km across 52 countries and five continents, over the next seven years.

Framroze returned to India in October 1931. Eighteen months later, in April 1933, another trio of Parsi cyclists from Bombay – Kaikee J Kharas, Rustam D Ghandhi and Rutton D Shroff – decided to girdle the globe on their humble bikes. They rode for nine years and traversed 84,000 km spanning five continents, before returning home in April 1942.

A year after Kharas, Ghandhi and Shroff had left Bombay, cyclist Jamshed Rustom Mody began his global ride in May 1934. He was only 18 and decided to ride solo all the way. A fortnight later, yet another Parsi cyclist, Manek K Vajifdar also chose the solo global ride. Both Mody and Vajifdar took the reverse route – circumnavigating the world from east to west.

They began biking from Australia and cycled across China and Japan, reached America and eventually Europe.

Mody returned home three years later traversing 48,000 km across continents. But, riding during the years of World War II, Vajifdar got stuck in London and could not make it back.

Considering their extensive travel plans across diverse climatic zones, the cyclists made a wise selection of their baggage. Essentially, it comprised few clothes change, light tent, firearms, leather hoods, basic provisions, medicines and water, besides their constant companions – camera and compass.

Jal Bapasola, Rustom Bhumgara and Adi Hakim on their Royal Benson Cycles in 1923. Photo credit: Author provided

On their journey, however, they acquired additional clothing and provisions depending on weather exigencies – leather jackets to combat cold, snow and light wear as a shield from winds and rains. On an average, their cycles weighed anywhere between 40 kg-45 kg including the baggage, carried in metal boxes attached to their machines.

The cyclists rode single, fixed gear “push bikes”, be it steep mountains, wild jungles or bone-dry deserts. Finally, they were slightly ahead of the age of affordable sunglasses and hence could not use the protective eyewear to prevent bright light and the blinding sun from damaging the eyes. At least one cyclist lost his eyesight during the expedition and died a blind man.

Despite these perilous journeys, the cyclists maintained meticulous diaries and shot awesome photographs. This was feasible, thanks to advances in the miniaturisation of photographic equipment and the introduction of a new Kodak camera that used film rolls instead of glass plates.

According to Kenneth Helphand, Knight Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Oregon, United States, “the development of the bicycle and photography (the Kodak), independently and in their interrelationship, radically altered our landscape perception and experience”.

Each of these expeditions is lucidly recorded and is a story of human ingenuity and courage.

More than that, these chronicles are invaluable anthropological, sociological and historical narratives. They were penned and pictured by a handful of Indians, the only ones to ride the streets of the world in the 1920s and 1930s.

They cycled through a Europe devastated by two World Wars, the Great Depression in America, strife-torn East Asia, the deserts of Sahara and Mesopotamia, the rainforests of Amazon and Southeast Asia and the mountains of the Alps and the Andes.

They observed the world of a century ago – witnessing the material destruction and moral degradation that followed the Wars, the humiliating racial discrimination and persecution of immigrants in the US and elsewhere, civil wars and peoples’ revolutions in East Asia, scenes of abject poverty and homelessness in Asia and Africa and the lives and practices of the tribes in the Amazon, Sahara and other places.

These sun-tanned cyclists were received by the Pope, kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, statesmen and mayors, innovators and scientists and sports persons and movie stars all over the world. They were welcomed and adored everywhere they went. They could have conveniently stayed back in either Europe and or the US. But they all came back, barring couple of exceptions.

Something was missing, though.

While their adventures and chronicles made a fascinating and insightful read, they did not reveal much about the cyclists themselves. Who were these daredevils? What motivated them? How was their upbringing? Where did they live and work? When and how did they meet and plan these death-defying expeditions? Who helped them financially and materially? What was their post-glory life? Were they recognised by their country and community? Or, did they die as unsung heroes?

Honours are not always honoured. We found ourselves drawn back to the same lingering questions again and again. To seek answers, we needed to find their families, friends and relatives.

Over the last five years, we have been able to trace them – some scattered within India and the rest overseas. They have been extremely kind and supportive, generously sharing their pictorial and documented archives and narrating stories about their fathers, grandfathers or grand-uncles, as the case may be.

In the two decades between 1923 and 1942 – the years immediately after and during the twentieth century’s two Great Wars – twelve Parsis from Bombay undertook five separate global cycling journeys: eight of them succeeded.

In our pursuit to retrace their journeys and getting to know them better, we have cherished every meeting, every chat – in person or online – and every moment spent on reading old books, filtering historical records and trawling through the age-browned pages of personal diaries and the albums of timeless photographs. It has made us even more of a committed cyclist than we were and connected us intimately with that simplest of human inventions: the bicycle.

Though an avid rider today, cycling is not an end in itself for us, it is a ride into infinite possibilities. This story of unsung heroes is a case in point, and we are proud to be telling it – thanks entirely to that freak-yet-fortunate fall of mine, back in 2017!

Excerpted with permission from The Bicycle Diaries by Anoop Babani and Savia Viegas, Saxtti Books.

Savia Viegas & Anoop Babani


With all the upheavals and struggles going around in the world today, the set of predictions made by Jamasp Saheb seem to be coming to life and appear much closer than what we might have perhaps anticipated in the past.

Here is an interesting translation of “The Prognostications of the Last Millennium” from Jamasp Namak:


King Vishtasp asked Jamasp, “what prognostications and signs do there appear for the coming time, for the coming of those my children?”

So the question is about the last generation of the coming apostles Hoshedar, etc.

Jamasp the astrologer said to him that when the time of Hoshedar would appear, these several signs shall necessarily appear.

The first is this, that the nights will be brighter.

The second is this, that (the star) Haptoring (constellation of the Bear) will leave its place and will turn in the direction of Khorasan.

The third is this, that the intercourse of persons one with another, will be great.

The fourth is this, that the breach of faith, which they will make at that time, will have quicker and greater results.

The fifth is this, that mean persons will be more powerful.

The sixth is this, that wicked persons will be victorious.

The seventh is this, that the Drujs (i.e., evil powers) will be more oppressive.

The eighth is this, that the magic and tricks which they will perform in those times, will be very bad.

The ninth is this, that the noxious creatures, like the tigers, the wolves, and four clawed animals will do great harm.

The tenth is this, that misinformed persons will commit great oppression upon the Dasturs of religion.

The eleventh is this, that the injury to the Dasturs of religion will be unlawful; they (the evil people) will take their property by force and will speak evil of them.

The twelfth is this, that the blowing of the summer and winter winds shall not be useful.

The thirteenth is this, that affection for pleasure will be prevalent.

The fourteenth is this, that those who are born at that time will reach death more (i.e., die more) in a miserable way and in untimely way (i.e., they will die an untimely miserable death).

The fifteenth is this, that respectable persons in spite of their respectful position, will practice too much of untruthfulness, injustice, and false evidence. Death, old age, unchecked pride, and strength will overtake (lit. reach) all countries. Then there will come the Dastur of the world (i.e., Hoshedar) The apostle will cleanse the whole country.

The sixteenth is this, that the two caves which are in Seistan will be destroyed and the seas of the cities will carry away the water and the whole of Seistan will be full of water.


We certainly do observe a few of these predictions already coming to fruition and can only wonder and pray that when everything is said and done, the pious souls will go unscathed.

– Ervad Jal Dastur


What reading Farrukh Dhondy’s ‘Poona Company’ means today to a Pune resident

‘I saw names and places I had grown up amidst etched in inexorable print, and suddenly, they became important.’

Things which had once existed both did and did not exist anymore. The past lay like a corpse amongst these houses and thoroughfares, and the present with its successive accretions had become its shroud.

I was standing in the midst of Farrukh Dhondy’s Poona, a world he immortalised in his book of short stories Poona Company. Published in 1980, it is peopled with unforgettable characters from Dhondy’s boyhood: Men like Soli Kolmi, the crafty bookie who “was constantly bent over double like a prawn”; Samson, the Parsee body carrier who “walked in the fashion of ‘heroes,’ his arms stretched into stiff bows on either side of his body, …supposed to tell people who were watching that your muscles were so thick they prevented movement;” Minocher Toot, the penny-press baron who ran tirades against anyone who provoked his ire; and Confession, the Jesuit Catholic who turned rogue, converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Prabhat.

But besides these, there is another character, diffuse and omniscient, seeping into everyone and everything in the book. This is the city of Pune itself, or more appropriately, a very particular Poona of Dhondy’s boyhood…because Dhondy did not grow up in the city proper, but on its outskirts, in an area popularly known as “Camp”.

I had been going to this part of the city since I was little, mostly to shop at Westside and buy Shrewsbury biscuits. I had never thought of asking why it was called “Camp”. Then I read Dhondy’s stories. The defeat of the Peshwas in 1818 rendered Poona a conquered city in the hands of the British, and in keeping with this conquest, the British army built a military station on the city’s outskirts to accommodate its soldiers and administrators. In effect, it set up “camp” here, and hence, the name.

Inside Poona ‘Camp’ | Photograph: Nehrotra Mehrotra

But that was not all. The British had to accommodate the myriad needs and wants of its campers, and this soon spawned the phenomenon of “Camp Followers”. Comprising shopkeepers and traders, cooks and cleaners, camp followers were a floating civilian population, allowed to live and work in the cantonment with the sole aim of satisfying the needs of the British army. These followers were at once part of the cantonment and apart from it, living in a clearly demarcated part of Cantt often known as the Bazaar.

It is this that is Dhondy’s Poona, and “Sarbatwalla Chowk and [his] neighbourhood, a little way down the road, were distinctly in the bazaar part of the camp, where no soldiers or administrators would ever have lived but where they would have been allowed to wander to the shops and cafes and markets and tumble-down growth of a no-man’s land between the narrow streets of the city and the spacious squares of the camp with its barracks and bungalows.”

Right off the bat, this incipient Chowk assumes a near mythical import in Dhondy’s stories. It was a hangout for everybody who was able-bodied and male in the neighbourhood, including “older schoolboys, college boys, idle petty businessmen who ran the bakeries or the bicycle hire shops, the pious retired gentlemen with Parsee caps and newspapers who’d while away their hours in the bustle of company, the unemployed, the thieves, the layabouts and the few masters of the Chowk who lived, in one way or another, off them all.”

Inside Poona ‘Camp’ | Photograph: Nehrotra Mehrotra

Forty years later, standing in this Chowk on a rainy weekday morning, I couldn’t help but feel it had shrunk. Though I had never seen it before, the pages of Dhondy’s book had evoked a grand image in my head of this chowk with a capital “C”, and the small, cramped thoroughfare I was standing in did nothing to consummate it. Time had shrunk space, as it does most things, and the Chowk’s erstwhile bulwarks seemed gone.

I began by searching for the Kayani and Sachapir cafes, which, in Dhondy’s telling, had flanked the sides of the Chowk like two loyal wingmen, and were where the neighbourhood’s punters had congregated to sip chaar and catch up on the latest gossip.

I found no traces of the Kayani or its mob, but as I was about to give up, I saw an old letterbox pushed into a cavernous cranny of one of the buildings: “Mr and Mrs Zal K Kayani, 624 Sachapir Street, 848 Dastur Meher Road,” the box proclaimed. Near the letterbox was a small shuttered shop, beige and anonymous. Could this be all that remained of the Kayani cafe? (The Kayani cafe has nothing to do with Pune’s famous Kayani bakery, which is in an altogether different part of Camp).

A nearby stall owner gave me an idea as to where I might find the Chowk’s other wingman, the Sachapir Cafe. He thought I might be referring to what was now Majestic restaurant in nearby Synagogue street, which he had heard used to be called Sachapir Cafe back in the day, though he couldn’t be sure.

Name and location swaps like these seemed common in these parts, preserving the old in new garbs. Even the Naaz cafe “on the corner of Main Street, which was an altogether grander place than either the Kayani or the Sachapir cafes of the Chowk, with glass tables and a garden and terrace” exemplified a similar switch. This low-grade bistro for upper-class loafers was no longer where it had once been. Instead, strolling through the lanes of Taboot street, I came across the Mahanaaz restaurant, which, after a cursory conversation with the proprietor, turned out to be the refurbished avatar of the erstwhile Naaz.

Inside Poona ‘Camp’ | Photograph: Nehrotra Mehrotra

Next, I turned onto Dastur Meher Road where Dhondy’s friend Dinsy used to live “in a first floor flat with four discreet white curtains on their four front windows,” through which Dinsy’s father would hurl furniture – and sometimes Dinsy too – out onto the pavement when they got into fights. Dastur Meher had always been a predominantly Parsi enclave. There are historical reasons for this.

The Parsis were the first camp followers to settle in the Pune cantonment. Apart from trading in hardware, European goods, and foreign liquor, they ran the first local taverns, even as other members of their community moonlighted as watch repairers, painters, clerks, carpenters and school teachers. In fact, the Parsis were the richest community among the “natives”, and were the first to be allowed by the British to own landed property and reside in the posh bungalow areas of Arsenal and Napier roads.

Apart from them, the bazaar comprised Muslim Boharas from Gujarat, Sunni Muslims from Kutch, Maheshwari Banias from Rajasthan, Goan Christians, Eurasians and Bene-Israelis, all of whom had come a long way to trade in the goods and services required by the British. In short, the socio-cultural composition of Camp was an eclectic hodgepodge made up of immigrants from all over the country.

It’s safe to say that this liminal effervescence was very different from the city of Pune as a whole, which skewed towards a – rather monotonous – Maratha monopoly. Appropriately, Dhondy’s stories abound with fire temple fiascos, vultures from the Tower of Silence, Synagogue streets devoid of Jews, Jesuit padris at St Vincent’s school and betting horses called Rose de Bahama.

The infamous Sarbatwalla Chowk itself is named after some Parsi or another, “walla” being a signature suffix in a community whose surnames of Daruwalla, Sodawaterwalla and even the rather caricatureish Sodabottleopenerwalla were often “a reflection of Parsi ingenuity and agency required to be a part of the new and innovative industries of the industrial era.”

All these years later, Dastur Meher road seemed tiny and picturesque, with quaint little houses glazed with unidentifiable squires and symbols. But the more I walked, the less picturesque it all became. The buildings were crumbling: the peeling paint and broken windows seemed a sign that most were uninhabited. The windows were ghostly: no curtains, no people, no Dinsy, no Dinsy’s father.

Some windows on the upper floors were actually wide open, as if there was no one and nothing inside them to protect. Everything seemed in the midst of a balancing act, teetering from side to side and quite liable to topple over any second. Scattered conversations with locals revealed that most houses were, in fact, empty. The old owners had passed away, and their properties were now mired in legal disputes.

A little red brick house sported an ominous notice across its facade: “This property bearing House No 865 Dastur Meher Road, Camp, Pune – 411001 belongs to the late Mrs Dinaz N Irani, Mrs Yasmin D Mazda and Mr Vispi Keki Chindhy. They are the legal heirs of late Mrs Dhun K Chindi and late Mr Keki Ardeshir Chindi whose names appear as the HOR in the records of the Pune Cantonment Board. Trespassers will be prosecuted.”

Inside Poona ‘Camp’ | Photograph: Nehrotra Mehrotra

I had always known Camp was different. To me, it had been an exotic place teeming with strange names and stranger accents. But nothing more. Its exoticism had precluded investigation. In fact, all my critical thinking congealed when it came to my own city, where I was born, had grown up and about which I knew next to nothing.

This had never bothered me, because I took it for granted that there was nothing to know. It was a static and provincial city, I told myself: something fixed to come home to but nothing stimulating enough to launch forth from.

And then I read Farrukh Dhondy’s Poona Company. I saw names and places I had grown up amidst etched in inexorable print, and suddenly, they became important. If someone had taken the pains to write about them, they must be important. My mind started racing; I wondered, wandered, questioned, and researched, uncharted verbs in relation to my own city; and as I did, Pune opened up before me, in all its past glory and present grime.

If it weren’t for Dhondy, I would never have known what Camp once was; and how it was no longer that anymore. I would never have known that today’s Mahatma Gandhi Road was once Main Street; that Sardar Patel Road was erstwhile East Street; that Sarbatwalla Chowk was not a nameless street corner but a proud Parsi bastion; and most importantly, that the people I saw here were not an inexplicably exotic population, but were the last remnants of a long, circuitous history I had not respected enough to try to be privy to.

Perhaps this overdependence on Dhondy is its own kind of problematic. After all, needing literary validation to birth sentience is not healthy, or even sustainable. But then again, it affirms for me something I have always believed in: the power of books. And ultimately, I am just glad that I managed to find this book that introduced me to my city.

Book review: The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer’ by Shrabani Basu

The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer’ by Shrabani Basu; Bloomsbury, Rs. 699, 320 pages

Towards the late 19th century, the family of an Indian vicar in rural England became the target of malicious anonymous letters, pranks and other assorted mischief. In 1903, things took a more sinister turn, when village cattle started to turn up mutilated or dead—the work of a night-time assailant in Great Wyrley, near Birmingham. George Edalji, a lawyer and the eldest son of Shapoorji, a Parsi convert to Anglicanism, and a white British woman, quickly came to be accused of the crimes. Despite dubious and contradictory evidence, the short-sighted “oriental” was decried as a blood-thirsty maniac with mysterious proclivities.

Tried and convicted in an inflamed atmosphere of racism and sentenced to a seven-year prison term, Edalji lost his legal licence and any hope of a reprieve—there was not yet a system in place for appeals. Still, Edalji was steadfast in protesting his innocence, and with little to lose, wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, the wildly popular writer of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures. Outraged by the apparent injustice, Conan Doyle, by now a respected public figure, set out to investigate. The British justice system had met its match.

Though it contained many of the same flavours of France’s Dreyfus affair—a wrongful conviction and sham trial, the involvement of a prominent writer, the imprints of xenophobia and racism, and the eventual unravelling of the truth—this episode remains comparatively forgotten. It has now been solidly resurrected in journalist and writer Shrabani Basu’s The Mystery of the Parsee Lawyer, an engrossing tale of intrigue, prejudice, investigation and disclosure. It is also a clever portrait of the artist as a crusader, the detective creator as detective himself.

Doyle is meticulous in his probe, even carrying on correspondence during his honeymoon, and unrelenting in his badgering of the authorities. His interventions and articles prove crucial. This is true crime, in a twisted, perverse sense; beyond the maiming that sets the story in motion, it’s a crime by the state against a hapless mixed-race British citizen.

Some of the ground is familiar from Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George, a fictional reimagining of the friendship between the two men, and Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defence, a true story focused on a similar wrongful conviction case that Conan Doyle championed. But Basu’s material contains new correspondence between some of the principals and a more granular telling of the entire sordid saga. Though it runs a bit long with a tendency to over-detail, it remains satisfying throughout, building through careful research and propelled by the innately dramatic trajectory of events.

Basu, who previously wrote Victoria and Abdul, about the queen’s friendship with her Indian servant, brings us another story of an unexpected friendship from the days of empire. It is just as rewarding.
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