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”.
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.
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