In the 1920s, long before the dawn of fake news, one Chinese man was told that Rabindranath Tagore had composed the Gujarati national anthem of the Parsi community that went: “We are old Zoroastrians”. The culprit was Adi Hakim, one of the “Super Six” khaki-clad Parsi cyclists who had endured brass band music as they set off from Lamington Road’s Gilder Tank ground on October 15, 1923 to fulfil a lofty dream: putting India on the global sports map by pedalling through the war-torn streets, snow-capped peaks, bone-melting deserts and dacoit-infested mountains across the world.
Article by Sharmila Ganesan Ram | Times of India
While three of these muscular Indian globetrotters from the Bombay Weightlifting Club–Keki Pochkhanawala, Nariman Kapadia and Gustad Hathiram–abandoned their saddles midway, the other three–Chira Bazaar’s athletic Rustom Bhumgara, six-foot-tall foodie Jal Bapasola and Dadar Parsi Colony’s gregarious Hakim–would return to Gilder Tank ground from their five-years-and-71000-km-long adventure, sunburnt and jubilant. Here, hordes of motorists, cyclists and gaily-clad Parsi women in omnibuses would watch Bhumgara recall his time working as a waiter in America and chuckle as Hakim would remember a man in China who sang the Chinese national anthem and then insisted that Hakim reciprocate by singing “the national anthem of the Parsis”. Under duress, Hakim had invoked a Gujarati hymn and, when asked who had composed it, uttered the name of the Bengali legend who wrote India’s national anthem.
Only the well-to-do in Bombay could afford cycles in those fraught, pre-Independence decades between 1920 and 1942 when 12 Parsi cyclists from the city had set off on five separate journeys that made them the first Indian eyewitnesses to the ravages of war in Europe, a strife-torn East Asia and the Great Depression in America. Of these cyclists–who pedalled alone and in groups across the deserts of Sahara, rainforests of Amazon and mountains of the Alps–eight were successful. Some had knelt before Pope Pius XI, some had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Benito Mussolini and Franklin Roosevelt. For lack of protective eyewear, one of these globe-trotters lost his sight and died a blind man. But the wealth of memories, photographs and meticulous notes they left behind are anthropological eye-openers if you ask Anoop Babani, a Goa-based cyclist who had tracked down the families of these early adventurers for photo exhibitions in 2019 that resulted in a book titled ‘The Bicycle Diaries’.
According to Babani–30-year-old sports journalist Framroz J Davar’s 1923 cycling expedition—pedalling 9000 kms alone from Bombay to Vienna and then covering 52 countries along with Austrian cyclist Gustav Sztavjanik over seven years–was the most perilous of the lot. While Davar, who started his journey three months after Super Six, had drawn inspiration from his fellow Parsi, Scout-uniform-clad predecessors, what had apparently imbued them with unprecedented daredevilry was a public lecture in the city by a foreigner who had been walking around the world.
Their audacious dream–sculpted in between bodybuilding sessions at Grant Road’s Bombay Weightlifting Club–had to be protected from their families for fear of opposition. So with savings of Rs 2000 each, a few clothes, medicine boxes, cycle gear, a second hand compass and crude copies of the world map, the Super Six had left quietly atop sturdy British Royal Benson cycles fitted with Dunlop tyres. It seems Britain’s Raleigh Cycle Company in Bombay had refused to sponsor cycles for their tour but when they rode into London, Raleigh was pleading with them to use their brand. Why the change of heart? “Frankly, we didn’t believe you boys would make it,” said officials at Raleigh.
While the shy and imposing Bapasola served as the team’s human GPS with his map-reading proficiency, the rugged, quick-witted auto mechanic Bhumgara–who repaired his mates’ cycles through the expedition–drew easy attention from women abroad. By the time Bhumgara’s parents found out where their son was, the Super Six had drunk water from mud pools in Bikaner populated by half-submerged buffaloes, hauled their bikes up marauder-infested mountains of Baluchistan and reached Persia, the land of their ancestors. Here, the robust trio would earn princely sums by performing antics such as splintering a stone on their chest with big hammers and dragging a car full of passengers with a rope held between their teeth. In Tehran, they would even be offered military jobs by then War Minister and would-be Prime Minister Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Their wordless flirtation with veiled Persian beauties in Iran was followed by another silent transaction: in Baghdad, where they would bribe Bedouins with cigarettes hidden in their cycle grips. Later, after crossing the starvation-inducing Syrian-Mesopotamian desert, they found themselves being mistaken for German spies in a remote Italian village and spent a night in jail before being let off the next morning with apologies. “Tumbled down homesteads, torn-up earth, heaps of empty shells, steel helmets, destroyed cannons and their carriages, deserted fields and solitary remains of some human skeletons half peering through its earthly covering..,” they wrote about the remnants of war they saw in prostitution-ridden Europe.
Their happiest days and smoothest roads would arrive in England, from where they took a steamer to New York–a city that made Hathiram announce to the others that he didn’t plan to return home. “Think that I drowned in the Atlantic, my friends, for the Gustad you knew is now no more,” said the letter his mates found under the hotel door. Without Hathiram, Kapadia–who had returned home from Tehran “for personal reasons”–and Pochkhanawala–who reverted from London to look after his ailing father–the group was now half its size. And at many points, they were tempted to take a boat home.
If America’s insulting immigration authorities repulsed them, so did the behaviour of French officials towards Indians in then Indo-China (present-day Vietnam) where the trio was put behind bars on charges of ‘bringing into hatred and the contempt of (French) government of Indo-China.’ In politically volatile China, they encountered floods, heat waves, bandits and soldiers who pointed guns to their forehead. All these hardships were temporarily offset by Miss Peggy, a French blonde they met in Rangoon whose cheerful company they pined for on the journey back into an alien-seeming Bombay. The city had sprouted trains, motorized buses and rising waves of migrants who lived in rented accommodations. Merely days before the trio’s rousing homecoming, in fact, a group of boarders had issued ‘Hints to Bombay Boarding House Landladies’, requesting some conveniences which included: “Any new dishes (food items) should first be tried on the dog. Boarders do not hold themselves responsible for the burial expenses of the dog.”